Jesus with fresh eyes


For ancient Israel the numinous was a reality which, they believed, intersected with the everyday world at many points, most particularly at the Most Holy Place (the “Holy of Holies”) in the Temple in Jerusalem, just as it had with the Tabernacle before it, but was capable of spontaneous experience anywhere, at any time in the devotional and spiritual experiences of ordinary people, especially in Spirit-filled mediators such as Moses and the prophets. It is this tradition of Spirit-filled mediators, people particularly atuned to and open to the spirit that is most significant for understanding the historical Jesus.

The Bible is dominated by such figures. We would expect to find God, like the gods of other cultures, strutting through the myths that form the preface to the Hebrew scriptures, like some bit part actor in the unfolding drama. This is the way the gods are portrayed in myths. But beyond this, as we study the legends and “history” (to use the word in a very loose sense, to describe the narrative of Israel’s origins from the Exodus through to the Exile) of Israel, we find that there is a continued, immediate, experience of Spirit: Abraham, Sarah, Lot, Hagar, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Miriam, Joshua, Deborah, Gideon, Samuel, Nathan, Solomon, Elijah, Elisha, and Isaiah and the later prophets. Their encounters were sometimes in their personal devotions, sometimes at times of deliberately seeking the Spirit, sometimes in sudden, unexpected encounters when the world of Spirit broke into the everyday world in visions of baskets of summer fruit, sail-cloths laden with animals or burning bushes, fiery ladders, or of an open doorway between the two worlds (Gen 28:17, Isaiah 6:1f, Rev 1:12-20 and 4:1), sometimes, too, the visions were incomprehensible (Ezekiel 1, Daniel 7-12, Revelation 5-22). These were people from every walk of life, from the highest to the least, male and female, who were perceived to be Spirit-people, they “heard” from God, they saw visions from God, they brought messages from God, were changed by their encounter with God (Moses’ face was reported to have glowed from his exposure to the שכינה (Shekinah, glory), while after his second encounter, Jacob limped). They were people who spoke of knowing and being known by God.

In Jesus’ day, the experience continued, the charismatic phenomenon of Jewish “holy people” active primarily in Galilee, were known for their immediate relationship with God, the efficacy of their prayer, and their mediation of the power of the Spirit, often, like Elijah, as healers and rainmakers. The two most famous, Honi the Circle-Drawer and Hanina ben Dosa, were both explicitly compared to Elijah. They were noted to have power over demons, who recognized and feared them and to have performed miraculous healings. Among the healings credited to Hanina, who lived in the mid first century A.D., was one in which he cured from a distance when he healed the son of Rabbi Gamaliel, the teacher of Paul, who was mortally ill with a fever, despite the fact that Hanina was in Galilee and Gamaliel’s son was in Jerusalem, a hundred miles away.

These spirit people were known for their intimacy with God. Sometimes they were even referred to as “son of God”. Honi, who lived two generations before Jesus, spoke of himself in a prayer attributed to him as “a son of the house of God (“Lord of the universe, thy sons have turned to me because I am as a son of the house before thee.”) and was seen as a powerful intercessor with the world of Spirit. A generation after Jesus’ death saw one of his followers, the apostle Paul, writing about his own journey into the world of the Spirit: “I know a man in Christ (Paul is referring to himself) who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows. And I know that this man was caught up into Paradise—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows—and he heard things that cannot be told, which man may not utter.” In this tradition, the world of Spirit is not seen, as it has traditionally been seen in Christianity, as a realm which the faithful enter after death, but as something close by and capable of being experienced now. Something seperated by several layers of experience, but, nonetheless, something capable of being entered, albeit something uncertain (“whether in the body or out of it”) and something so far beyond our everyday experience that it cannot be adequately described. Paul’s conversion too, is probably best understood as a charismatic experience, and he too, according to Acts, was seen a healer, a channel for the Spirit’s power and as speaking from God.

The reality of this other world needs to be taken seriously. However we understand these experiences there is much to commend them. Our principal objection comes from a rigid application of the modern scientific worldview, but while this is valid for understanding the concrete realities, processes, forces and functions of our universe, it is only one of a large number of models for our understanding of the totality of reality, but it is not an absolute. It has had many predecessors, all of which are the products of particular cultures and as our understanding develops, and it will be superceded or, at least modified. Already we recognise that reality behaves in ways that stretch this worldview beyond its limits. None of this proves the truth of the earlier, religious, worldview, but it undermines the principal reason for rejecting it. A worldview that rejects or ignores the spiritual dinension is one that is relative and partial. It describes the world we inhabit, but not our experience of it. Throughout most of history, people in diverse cultures have experienced another dimension which seemed to them to be more real, more powerful, and more fundamental than the world of everyday experience. There no good reason to suppose this other world to be unreal and much experiential evidence to suggest that it may be real. In any case, quite apart from the question of ultimate truth, it is necessary to take seriously the reality of the world of Spirit if we wish to take the central figures of the Jewish tradition in any way seriously. To try to understand Jesus and the wider Jewish tradition of which he was part while dismissing the notion of another world, or immediately reducing it to a merely psychological phenomena, is to fail to take seriously what these Spirit-people experienced and reported. Given the subsequent historical importance of Jesus we need, at least to attempt to understand the tradition and culture of which he was part and to understand its worldview.


Like Ezekiel some six hundred years before him, Jesus’ ministry began when (at his baptism in the Jordan) he saw “the heavens opened,” and briefly glimpsed the other world, as if through a door from which he saw “the Spirit descending upon him,” and heard a “heavenly voice” which declared him to be “… my beloved Son; with whom I am well-pleased.” There is little reason to doubt the historicity of the baptism and it seems petty to doubt the reality of the vision itself. There is some uncertainty over the “heavenly voice” though, because the words seem so clearly express the post-Easter understanding of Jesus’ identity that it seems likely that they are the product of his followers in the years after Easter as the Church began to form. However, this all depends on our understanding the phrase as the early Church intended us to, if, however, “beloved Son” is given the meaning which similar expressions have in stories of other Jewish charismatics, then it is eminently possible that this too was part of the experience of Jesus. Other Spirit-people had similar experiences in which a “heavenly voice” declared them to be God’s “son”. Whichever view we take concerning the historicity of “heavenly voice,” the story itself locates Jesus firmly in the tradition within Judaism of Spirit-filled charismatics and reflects the multi-layered understanding of reality which was the actual experience of his predecessors in this tradition and is highly reminiscent of the call of many of the prophets.


Jesus’ ministry not only began with an experience of the Spirit, but was dominated throughout by his experience of the other world.

According to the traditional narrative in the gospels, immediately after his baptism, Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness where he spent time fasting and where he had a series of visions revolving around his reflection on his vocation. In one of these, Jesus was tempted to use his powers to change stones into bread. In another, he sees himself, as it were, transported to the highest point of the temple in Jerusalem from where he can view all of the kingdoms of the world in a single moment of time. Throughout these visions, Jesus is tempted to use his Spirit power in self-serving ways. The visions are highly stylised and reminiscent of the experiences of Moses and Elijah and other Jewish holy men, the historicity of the traditional narrative may not be authentic, but in terms of the tradition, the experience almost certainly is. Jesus travelled into the wilderness, alone, where, in a desolate desert area near the Dead Sea, he underwent a period of extended solitude and fasting, practices which are known to produce changes in consciousness and perception typical of what other traditions call a “vision quest.” We do not know if Jesus had other visions and the fact that none are reported may be not be significant, it may simply be that these served the gospel writers’ purposes, in framing his vocation.

Again like other Spirit-people, Jesus practiced prayer. This discipline falls between two stools in the modern world, on the one hand many believers readily talk about prayer and believe that they practice it in their daily devotions, however, what they mean by this is primarily that form of prayer in which God is addressed with words, whether aloud, in public prayer, or mentally in private prayer. “Verbal prayer” is typically brief and is focused on petition, intercession and Thanksgiving. Liturgically, it is also frequently associated with confession. But verbal prayer is only one form of prayer in the Jewish-Christian tradition and, indeed, it is only the first stage of prayer. On the other hand, this is also the idea of prayer which unbelievers understand to be definitive of the practice. Because of this, those for whom any experience of the Spirit is alien, understanbly perceive it to be immature and self-centred, and find the model of God which unerlies it (as the dispenser of blessings like a cosmic slot machine, who is able to intervene to suspend the laws of nature at his pleasure), to be implausble. Prayer is seen as being as valid as touching wood, or crossing one’s fingers, an out dated superstition resorted to sometimes in desperation, but psychologically and philosophically suspect Because of this the realm of Spirit us seen to lack credibility.

However, within the Jewish-Christian tradition, there are other, much deeper, and, sadly, much neglected forms of prayer, characterized by internal silence and lengthy periods of time. In this state, one enters into deeper levels of consciousness; ordinary consciousness is stilled, and one sits quietly in the presence of God. This is generally referred to as contemplation or meditation, or, in the older literature, and perhaps more accurately, as communion or union with God. In this the practitioner enters the realm of Spirit and directly experiences God. Though preserved in monastic communities and by such groups as the Quakers, it has largely disappeared from the experience of the largely superficial and consumer-driven contemporary Church. For the tradition in which Jesus stood, however, this mode of prayer was normative. Moses and Elijah, particularly are characterised in the literature as spending long periods of time in solitude and communion with God, as was Jesus.

Meditation also is found in Jewish mysticism, not just in the (medieval) Kabbalah, but in the Merkabah mysticism which was contemporaneous with Jesus. For these mystics, contemplative prayer was the vehicle for ascending through the heavens to the ultimate vision of the throne of God, that is to say, of experiencing the מלכות, the βασιλεία του Θεού, the kingship (or kingdom) of God. The gospels depict Jesus as one who practiced this form of prayer, something almost unknown in modern culture, regularly withdrawing into solitude for hours, or even overnight, spent in prayer; not verbal prayer, but contemplation or meditation, the stilling of the mind and directing of the heart toward God. The same practice is reported of Hanina ben Dosa and others in the Jewish spiritual tradition.

The intimacy of Jesus’ experience of Spirit is pointed to by one of the distinctives of his prayer life: his use of the world Abba, an Aramaic word used by very young children to address their daddy. In Judaism, it was rare to call God “Abba”, the normal expression was “Father”, yet (again unlike the Church with its remote language through which believers keep God at a respecful distance: “Almighty and most merciful Father …”; “Amighty God, Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, maker of all things, judge of all men …“) such was Jesus’ practice.

Luke places the words on Jesus’ lips at the beginning of his ministry, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.” They were from the writings of an earlier charismatic, which Luke has Jesus read at the beginning of his ministry. Whether in doing so, Luke was noting something the community recalled Jesus actually doing, or was framing Jesus vocation in terms of the tradition, is a moot point, but he has Jesus add at the end of the reading, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” Intentionally or otherwise, Luke has linked Jesus’ ministry to the Jewish charismatic tradition and in doing so may actually be reflecting Jesus’ own understanding of his mission. It may well be, that by the time Luke was writing, the Church was already so detached from its Jewish roots, that he unintentionally kept the reference in, because he misunderstood it in terms of the proto-orthodoxy which was already developing. For him, it was about seeing Jesus as the annointed one, the Christ, while for Jesus, it spoke of his identification with the tradition and his Spirit empowerment within that tradition. Whatever the case, we see Jesus in the gospels as one whose life, from his baptism onward, throughout his ministry and mission, was marked by an intense experience of the Spirit.

In his book, The Experience of the Holy, Rudolf Otto describes the numinous presence that frequently is felt in charismatic figures by those around them. There is something uncanny about such figures which evokes awe and wonder and impresses people with the feeling of another world. There may be something authoritative about the way they speak, something penetrating about the way they see, something powerful about their presence – all if this was true of Jesus. Mark wrote in his gospel, “and they were on the road, going up to Jerusalem, and Jesus was walking ahead of them; and they were amazed, and those who followed were filled with awe.” Jesus made a striking impression, very different from the trained and institutionally recognised rabbis: “They were astonished at his teaching, for he taught them as one who had authority, and not as the scribes.” The word translated “authority” translates a rabbinic term: גבורה (Geburah, power): “He speaks from the mouth of the Geburah,” that is to say, from the power or the Spirit. This is why popular opinion associated him with such earlier charismatic figures, as Elijah or John the Baptist. The aura of “otherness” surrounding him may also explain the reaction of his family on one occasion: “They went out to seize him, for they said, ‘He is beside himself,’ ” that is, insane. Even his opponents granted that there was a spiritual power at work in him, but interpreted it as coming from “Beelzebul, the prince of demons.” Unsurprisingly, he attracted crowds: people “could not get near him because of the crowd“. More than that, however, Jesus himself was aware of this power or authority which others sensed in him. When some of the religious leaders in Jerusalem questioned him about his authority, Jesus responded with a question: “I will ask you a question. Answer me, and I will tell you by what authority I do these things. Was the baptism of John from heaven or from men?” Jesus claimed the same authority as John, one grounded neither in institution nor tradition but in the Spirit. Similarly, Jesus was aware of the power of the Spirit he mediated, on one occasion, it is reported in the gospels, after a woman had touched his garment in order to be healed, he perceived that power had gone out of him. The style of Jesus’ teaching too shows this awareness on his part of an immediate, numinous, authority. We see it in his emphatic, “You have heard it said … but I say unto you” statements.

It is difficult to get behind the words of the gospels, shaped as they are by the Easter experience and the Christology which developed after Jesus’ death as his followers focussed more and more on his significance as the Christ, and less and less on his actual life, ministry and teaching, but again and again what we see is this charismatic, Spirit-person, breaking the surface. What we encounter is someone unique in his experience of the Spirit and unique in the power with which he transmitted that experience, but nevertheless someone deeply rooted in the tradition of Jewish mysticism. The potential for transformation that he offers, even after two millennia is enormous and the challenge to experience that transformative power, the immediate experience of God, contained in the simple, often repeated petition, “Thy Kingdom (מלכות) come” is huge.

The Jesus of History and The Christ of Faith

Mad, Bad or God?

“I am trying … to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept his claim to be God. That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic — on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg — or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse. You can shut him up for a fool, you can spit at him and kill him as a demon or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God, but let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.

C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity

C.S. Lewis, although not himself a Fundamentalist, nor, indeed a theologian or Biblical scholar, is, probably, every Fundamentalist’s favourite apologist. He was, in fact, fairly typical of High Church Anglicanism of the early to mid 20th century: orthodox, conservative, moderately “catholic” in many respects, yet with an independent (“protestant”) spirit. If all that sounds an odd blend, then you haven’t spent much time in the company of Anglicans. He placed a premium on his logical approach, and yet, as this, probably his most famous quote from, probably his most famous book, shows, he made huge, unwarranted assumptions which reveal gaps in his logic. The fact that Fundamentalists love him reveals the paucity of their own theology and the fragility of their logic.

The problem with this particular tossed gauntlet is, that it only allows three possible conclusions and deliberately rules out a fourth, that which many would instinctively opt for, without any real justification for doing so. It presents three alternatives, two of which, it feels confident will be rejected, in order to corral the reader into a place where they must accept the third. It’s great rhetoric if you don’t question it, but it is all bully, bluster and bravado if you look beneath the surface.

Lewis and his Fundamentalist cheerleaders (from whom, were he still alive, he would want to distance himself) assume that, of the options: mad, bad or God, people will, however reluctantly, opt for the third, because the other two are unthinkable. But the reality is different. Despite the bias of the gospels, it is clear that amongst his contemporaries there were many who thought Jesus to be in league with Satan, not least the religious leaders of the day. There were also many who, apparently, thought him to be a lunatic – his mother and siblings amongst them. Yet there no evidence that anyone during his lifetime thought him to be God, and certainly he himself did not claim this. It is only with John’s gospel from the end of the 1st century that the push begins in that direction.

The crux of Lewis’ bit of spurious logic though, is the phrase, “A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher.” The problem with Lewis is that, despite the status accorded to him by Fundamentalists, he was not trained as a Theologian or as a Biblical Scholar, these disciplines were outside of his field. He was a professor of Medieval and Renaissance English Literature, a layman, albeit an able communicator. His vaunted logic collapses, because he makes the unwarranted assumption that what we have in the gospels are the actual words of Jesus. They are not. According to the Jesus Seminar, a collection of many of the best theologians and biblical scholars today, around 82% of the words ascribed to Jesus in the gospels were not actually spoken by him. How do we account for this? Would Jesus’ disciples really have remembered so little of what he said? Perhaps, instead, we should be asking, is it realistic to think that his disciples would have remembered so much of what he said as the gospels suggest?

As we saw previously, the gospels we possess are not the work of eye witnesses or even of Jesus’ contemporaries (had Jesus lived he would have been around 80 by the time that even the first of the extant gospels, Mark, was written), but even the autographs of these gospels have not survived. The oldest surviving copies date from about 175 years after the death of Jesus, and, even then, no two copies are precisely alike. Handwritten manuscripts have almost always been “corrected” in places, often by more than one scribe. This gap of almost two centuries means that the original text has been copied more than once, by hand, before reaching the copies we have. Even the most careful scribe makes mistakes. So we can never be certain exactly what the original text of any biblical writing was. What we can be certain of, is that his teaching comprised short, pithy, memorable sayings and equally memorable yarns making spiritual points, which were retold orally for over 30-40 years before the gospels were written, gathering a narrative structure and changing shape to meet the exigencies of a changed situation as they went and being added to, pseudonymously, by the community, with “the sort of thing that Jesus would have said”, in exactly the same way as happened with every writer and thinker in the ancient world.

Distinguishing Jesus from Christ

In the course of the modern, critical study of the Bible, which began with the Enlightenment (from around 1690 C.E.), biblical scholars and theologians have learned to distinguish the Jesus of history from the Christ of faith. It has not been a challenging and tortuous process for the Church. The distinction between the Jesus of history and the Christ if faith is the difference between an historical person who lived in a particular time and place and was subject to the limitations of a normal, temporal existence, like anyone else, and a mythical figure which descends from heaven to rescue humankind and eventually returns there. A figure whom many Christians believe will return to earth at the end of history to inaugurate a new age.

Historically, the Church smothered the historical Jesus by superimposing over him the heavenly figure of the creeds: Jesus is lost to the Christ and becomes:

– God’s only Son, our Lord,

– conceived by the Holy Spirit,

– born of the Virgin Mary,

– crucified, died, and was buried;

– on the third day he rose again;

– ascended into heaven,

– is seated at the right hand of the

Father, and

– will come again to judge the living

and the dead.

The connection with the rabbi from Nazareth is limited to the facts that he was crucified, dead and buried. Nothing between his birth and death seems to have been essential to his mission or even particularly relevant to the faith of the church. This view is primarily derived from that of Paul, who did not know the historical Jesus and whose writings, like the pseudapigrahia written subsequently in his name, focussed solely on the soteriological importance of the mythic Christ. In Paul’s theological schema, Jesus the man had no essential role. The gospels, which were written after Paul’s letters, may be understood as corrections to this imbalance.

Once the discrepancy between the Jesus of history and the Christ of faith emerged from beneath the smothering cloud of creed and dogma, it was only a matter of time before scholars uncoupled the two. There is much in the Christ myth which has no foundation in historical fact, as we shall go on to see. Interestingly, there is much too, that Jesus is believed to have said, that does not fit with the historical reality either, so before considering what Jesus actually did, let us consider what we are most certain that he taught.

The Jesus Seminar

The Jesus Seminar did vital work in establishing what Jesus most probably, possibly or was unlikely to have said. Although the voting process was ridiculed by Fundamentalists, it provided, in a simplified and highly visual format, the consensus of scholar opinion. The results were challenging for the traditional picture of Jesus’ teaching. When asked to vote on the historicity of the sayings recorded in the gospels, the Fellows voted that those most likely to be authentic were:

Turning the other cheek (Q) Matt 5:39, Luke 6:29a

Giving both coat & shirt (Q) Matt 5:40, Luke 6:29b

Blessings to those who are poor! (Q, Thomas) Luke 6:20, Thomas 54 Matt 5:3

Going the second mile (Q) Matt 5:41

Love of enemies (Q) Luke 6:27b, Matt 5:44b, Luke 6:32, 35a

The parable of the Leaven (Q, Thomas) Luke 13:20-21, Matt 13:33, Thom 96:1-2

The Emperor & God (Thomas, Mark) Thom 100:2b, Mark 12:17b, Luke 20:25b, Matt 22:21c

Giving to beggars (Q) Matt 5:42a, Luke 6:30a

The Samaritan (L) Luke 10:30-35

Blessings to the hungry! (Q, Thomas) Luke 6:21a, Matt 5:6, Thom 69:2

Of the 33 parables attributed to Jesus those that the Seminar believed to be authentic were:

The Leaven (Matt 13:33b, Luke 13:20b-21)

The Good Samaritan (Luke 10:30b-35)

The Dishonest Steward (Luke 16:1-8a)

The Vineyard Laborers (Matt 20:1-15) and,

The Mustard Seed (Mark 4:31-32)

Additionally parables voted on as being likely to be authentic (the pink category) include:

The Leaven (Thom 96:1)

The Mustard Seed (Matt 13:31b-32, Mark 4:31-32, Luke 13:19)

The Lost Coin (Luke 15:8-9)

The Hidden Treasure (Matt 13:44, Thom 109)

The Lost Sheep (Matt 18:12-13, Luke 15:4-6) and

The Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11b-32)

What the Seminar also overwhelmingly agreed was that almost the entirety of the Gospel of John is unhistorical and that Jesus of Nazareth most certainly did not refer to himself as the Messiah, nor did he claim to be a divine being who descended to earth from heaven in order to die as a sacrifice for the sins of the world.

At the heart of Jesus’ teaching and actions was a vision of a life under the rule of God in which love, peace, justice, generosity and goodness are regarded as the model and measure of human life; everyone is accepted as a child of God and thereby liberated both from the ethnocentric confines of traditional Judaism and from the secularisation, servitude, exploitation, injustice and poverty of the Pax Romana.

Finally, and at variance to the view which had been held for most of the 20th century, since Schweitzer, the Seminar asserted that Jesus did not hold an apocalyptic view of the kingdom of God – that by direct intervention God was about to bring history to an end and usher in a new, perfect, world order. Rather, in Jesus’ teaching the rule of God is a vision of what life in this world could be, not a prophetic vision of life in a future world that would soon be brought into being by a miraculous act of God.

The Historical Jesus, then, was not the pre-existent Word of God that we find in the gospel of John, nor yet the second Adam of Paul, whose sole purpose in being born was to die as a substitutionary atonement for the sin of humankind, and was far from being the incarnation of the second person of the Trinity that we find in later Church writings. He was a man, like any other, with a very clear understanding of his relationship with the numenous, the wholly other, which we identify as God, though it is beyond our understanding, and of his mission to Israel, that people with a unique vocation to be the people of God, and it is to that we now turn in order to understand his purpose in life and his relevance today.

(For the criteria used by the Jesus Seminar and an explanation of the process, see The Five Gospels by Robert Funk and the Jesus Seminar, HarperOne, (1997); and The Gospel of Jesus by Robert Funk and the Jesus Seminar, Polebridge Press, 2014)

A man there lived in Galilee …

The question is sometimes asked, generally by those who similarly question whether the earth is really flat, or whether the moon landings actually took place or whether the Illuminati secretly run the world, as to whether there was an historical Jesus. No reputable scholar, however, has any doubts that there was, and for good reason, for while most peasants passed their lives in obscurity and left no sign of their passing, within a century of his death, Jesus is referred to by three Roman authors (albeit only obliquely by two), by a Jewish historian, and is the focus of numerous gospels and epistles. None of these writers wrote, during Jesus’ lifetime, in fact the earliest (Paul) wrote at least 20 years later, but the cumulative result is a body of evidence which no one seriously denies. That said, what we do know about him, his life and teachings, is a far cry from what is popularly believed to be the case, and is further still from what Fundamentalists claim.

Roman Sources

The earliest sources outside of the New Testament are Roman (the writers, Pliny, Suetonius and Tacitus) and from a Roman sympathiser, Josephus. They date from the end of the first century and into the second. They actually give very little detail, but that they give any at all is noteworthy. At best, Jesus was an illiterate Jewish peasant who never travelled outside of Palestine, he was part of a tiny number of people from that background to have caused the authorities to take note of him, but he did not draw the degree of attention we might expect from the picture we have of him in the gospels.

The earliest writer outside of the New Testament, is Pliny the Younger, governor of the Roman province of Bithynia-Pontus in Asia Minor. Pliny is best known for the letters he wrote to the emperor, Trajan, asking advice in governing his province. In one letter (number 10 from 112 AD) Pliny mentions Jesus. The letter is not about Jesus, instead it is dealing with a political issue. Local legislation in Pliny’s province made assembly illegal for fear of an armed uprising. But it prevented assembly for any reason and this included the fire brigades. As a result, there was no effective body to manage the outbreak of fires in the villages. The letter addresses this issue and in so doing, refers to a group that was gathering illegally, Christians. Pliny made enquiries about this group and reported to the emperor what he had learned. The Christians cane from a cross section of society and gathered together early in the morning to eat a common meals together “sing hymns to Christ as to a god.” That is the extent of the reference. He does not even refer to Jesus by name, but by his title, Christ. But it does show that there was a worshipping community in Asia Minor which was identifiable as being Christian and its focus was on the Christ.

Suetonius is even less forthcoming. He is a Roman biographer, his “Lives of the Caesars”, written in 115 AD includes a biography of Claudius, who was emperor from 41 to 54 AD, in it Suetonius mentions that during his reign, Claudius had all of the Jews in Rome deported, because of riots that had occurred “at the instigation of Chrestus.” He says nothing further, but scholars see this as significant as it was Roman Jews who believed that Jesus was the messiah (Christ in Greek hence “Chrestus”), who had stirred up the Jews who did not believe this to be so. The violent reaction got out of hand and led to the riots mentioned by Suetonius. This may be alluded to in Acts18:2. If that is the case and Suetonius misspelled the name Christus as Chrestus it does not help us a great deal other than to show that there was a Christian community in Rome at the time the riots took place.

The third reference is from the Roman historian Tacitus. He wrote The Annals of Imperial Rome, a history of the empire from 14 to 68 AD, which was published in 115 AD. The best known passage in this multi volume work is that which chronicles the great fire of Rome during the reign of the emperor Nero, in 64 AD. According to Tacitus, it was the emperor himself who had arranged for the city to be burnt, because he wanted to redevelop the city, but was unable to do so while the older parts of the city were still standing. The plan failed, as many suspected that the emperor was responsible. Nero shifted the blame to a scapegoat community, the Christians whom the people of the city hated and were all too willing to blame as they were known for their “hatred of the human race.” This led to the mass arrest and horrific execution of a great number of them. A persecution so great and so vicious that Nero’s reputation found its way into the pages of the New Testament, with him resurrected as the end times Antichrist. Tacitus in explaining Nero’s perfidy gives a little background to Christians, stating that, “the author of this name, Christ, was put to death by the procurator, Pontius Pilate, while Tiberius was emperor; but the dangerous superstition, though suppressed for the moment, broke out again not only in Judea, the origin of this evil, but even in the city [of Rome].” Tacitus wrote around eighty five years after Jesus’ death, by that time Christians were gathering together in local assemblies, telling stories of Jesus and worshipping him in prayer and song.


Flavius Josephus is one of the most significant figures in First Century AD Judaism his historical writings are the main source of information about the life in Roman Palestine in the first century. He was actively involved in many of the events that he writes about in his “Jewish Wars”. He was born into an aristocratic family and became involved in the politics of Palestine. In 66 AD there was a major revolt when the Jews attempted to regain their independence. Josephus was appointed as general, leading the troops in Galilee. The Romans sent the legions from Syria. In order to reach Jerusalem, they had to march through Galilee, where Josephus’ troops were no match. They found themselves surrounded and made a suicide pact rather than surrender. They drew lots; the first being killed by the second and so on until the last two remained, and these were to take their own lives. Josephus drew one of the final lots and, when the others were dead, persuaded his remaining comrade not to kill himself but to surrender to the Romans. Because he was an aristocrat and military leader, Josephus was taken to the Roman general named Vespasian. Shrewdly, Josephus told Vespasian that he had learned in a revelation that Vespasian, was destined to become emperor. As it turned out, Josephus’s prophecy came true. After Nero committed suicide in 68 AD, there three emperors in quick succession, after which Vespasian’s troops declared him emperor. He returned to Rome, assumed the throne and left his son Titus in charge of the army laying siege to Jerusalem. Josephus was an interpreter during the three-year siege. After it fell, the opposition was butchered and the Temple and much of the city destroyed. Josephus went to Rome and given a prestigious position in Vespasian’s court where he wrote his histories. The first was the account of the war, twenty years later (c. 93 AD) he completed his twenty volume history of the Jewish people from Adam to his own day, which he called “The Antiquities of the Jews”. Josephus mentions a number of significant Jews, including on two occasions, Jesus, and, more briefly, John the Baptist. The second reference is very brief and is found in Book 20 of the “Antiquities”. Josephus refers to an incident in 62 AD, before the Jewish revolt, when the high priest Ananus, misused his power. The Roman governor had been withdrawn, and in his absence, Ananus unlawfully put to death James “the brother of Jesus, who is called the messiah” (Antiquities 20.9.1). Unlike the Roman references above, Jesus is named. We further see that he had a brother called James, and he was thought to be the messiah. Both points are found readily in the New Testament, but it is interesting to see that Josephus is aware of them. The other reference (the Testimonium Flavianum), is more important. In the best manuscripts it reads: “At this time there appeared Jesus, a wise man, if indeed one should call him a man. For he was a doer of startling deeds, a teacher of people who receive the truth with pleasure. And he gained a following both among many Jews and among many of Greek origin. He was the messiah. And when Pilate, because of an accusation made by the leading men among us, condemned him to the cross, those who had loved him previously did not cease to do so. For he appeared to them on the third day, living again, just as the divine prophets had spoken of these and countless other wonderous things about him. And up until this very day the tribe of Christians, named after him, has not died out.” (Antiquities 18.3.3) There are substantial and obvious problems with this passage. Josephus was thoroughly Jewish but this passage contains comments that only a Christian would make:

– that Jesus was more than a man,
– that he was the messiah,
– and that he rose from the dead.

Most scholars agree that there is no possibility that a Jew would have written this as it stands. Instead, it is far more likely that this passage has been revised by a later Christian scribe. It is likely that the original text would have been more innocuous and have read something like: “At this time there appeared Jesus, a wise man. He was a doer of startling deeds, a teacher of people who receive the truth with pleasure. And he gained a following both among many Jews and among many of Greek origin. When Pilate, because of an accusation made by the leading men among us, condemned him to the cross, those who had loved him previously did not cease to do so. And up until this very day the tribe of Christians, named after him, has not died out.” This is conjecture as no original text exists, however, if this represents anything like the original, then Josephus still had some solid historical information about Jesus’ life:

– Jesus was known for his wisdom and teaching;
– he was thought to have done remarkable deeds;
– he had numerous followers;
– he was condemned to be crucified by Pontius Pilate because of Jewish accusations brought against him;
– and he continued to have followers among the Christians after his death.

It is most likely that Josephus would have heard stories about Jesus circulating by word of mouth in Palestine, it is possible that he may have carried out research, though this seems unlikely, given the sparse details in the text and Jesus’ relative unimportance, from his perspective. What is extremely unlikely, however, is that Josephus had read any of the Gospels, so, while the passage tells us no more than we know from them, it does provide us with independent substantiation for what the Gospels attest.

New Testament Sources

The earliest extant writings to mention Jesus, come from Paul who wrote the earliest documents found in the New Testament. His first letter, 1 Thessalonians, is dated to 49 AD within twenty years of Jesus’ death; his last (probably Romans) dates from some twelve years later.

Although Paul never met Jesus, and it is unlikely that he even heard him preach, he knew him to be a Jewish teacher whose ministry was to the Jewish people and who died by crucifixion. Paul was also definite in his identification of Jesus as the Jewish messiah (Christ) so much so that he used the term Christ as if it was one of Jesus’ actual names. That is partly why he insisted that Jesus was a physical descendant of David since it was widely thought that the “son of David” would be the future ruler of the Jews. (In Romans 1:3–4, Paul refers to “the gospel concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh.”). Paul knew of Jesus’ family, refers obliquely to Jesus’ mother, mentions the brothers of Jesus, who after Jesus’s death became missionaries along with their wives, and also met with James, Jesus’ eldest brother, in his role as the leader of the Church in Jerusalem.

Paul knew details of Jesus’ teaching and quotes several of his sayings. Amongst these was the detailed narrative account of the Last Supper on the night Jesus was handed over to the authorities (“For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night in which he was handed over took bread, and after giving thanks he broke it and said, “This is my body that is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” Likewise also the cup after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, whenever you drink, in remembrance of me.” 1 Corinthians 11:22–24). Quite what Paul meant when he says that he “received” this tradition “from the Lord,” is unclear, but he certainly intends it to guarantee the trustworthiness of the account which he believed was confirmed to him by Jesus, himself. The words “received” and “delivered,” is the language commonly used in Jewish circles to refer to authoritative traditions that are handed on from one teacher to the next. In this case, a tradition about Jesus’ Last Supper, which Paul obviously knew about which is very close to the description of the event in the Gospel of Luke and may come from a common source.

Finally, we have the Gospels which are historical documents, no different from any other historical sources, with their authors’ biases. Whatever else may be said, Jesus is shown to have lived in first-century Palestine, to have taught as an itinerant rabbi, have performed acts which were seen as signs, if not miracles, and to have been crucified by the prefect of Judea. We may say this much, not because “the Bible says so” and it must, therefore, be true (the view of Fundamentalists), but because these are historic documents, close in time to the events recorded, bearing evidence of having relied on even earlier, unrelated sources.

Our earliest Gospel is probably Mark, usually dated to around 70 AD within forty years of Jesus’ death. Matthew and Luke used Mark, but significant sections of both are not related in any way to Mark, and these sections of their Gospels Matthew and Luke record extensive, independent traditions about Jesus’s life, teachings, and death. So while in their shared material they do not provide independent corroboration, in their unique material they do. They were probably written ten to fifteen years after Mark, so that by the year 80-85 AD we have three semi independent accounts of Jesus’ life all from within a generation of Jesus’ life.

Additionally, there are other independent Gospels. The Gospel of John, which other than the arrest, trial and crucifixion, has almost no similarity to the other three canonical Gospels, is generally dated to 90–95 AD. Then, too, there is the Gospel of Thomas, a collection of 114 sayings of Jesus, which, originally, probably pre-dated Mark (DeConick makes a strong argument, based on a careful study of the text, that the core of the Gospel of Thomas was in circulation before 50 AD before even Paul began to write), but shows signs of a later revision from the early second century, between 110–20 AD. Although Thomas shows an awareness of material found in the synoptics (Matthew, Mark, and Luke), it is generally believed to be independent, certainly a large proportion of Thomas, if not all of it, is not derived from the canonical Gospels. The same is true of the Gospel of Peter, a fragmentary account of Jesus’ trial, death, and resurrection. Again, even though there is some similarity to what is found in the canonical Gospels, Peter seems to preserve an independent narrative, drawn from other, sources. The Papyrus Egerton 2 are partial remains which contain four pericopes from the life of Jesus, one of which has no parallel in any other known Gospel. Hence we have seven independent accounts all of which were based on earlier written and oral sources that no longer survive. They obviously existed at one time, and had to predate the Gospels that we now have. One of these is the lost Gospel called Q. The reason for thinking that this source was written before the synoptics is because of the literary relationship they have to one another; they often use the same sequence and even the same words to tell a story. Even though both Matthew and Luke used Mark as a sources, they share a passages not found in Mark (the Lord’s Prayer and the Beatitudes for instance). The best solution to the puzzle is the existence of another source alongside Mark, traditionally called Q by scholars. The beginning of Luke attests to this multiplicity of Gospels: “Whereas many have attempted to compile a narrative of the things that have been fulfilled among us, just as the eyewitnesses and ministers of the word delivered them over to us, it seemed good to me also, having followed all these things closely from the beginning, to write for you an orderly account” (1:1–3).

In the case of Thomas, Q and whatever tradition Paul drew upon, we can say with certainty that within 15-20 years of Jesus’ death there were numerous accounts of his life in circulation.

But there is evidence too, of written sources that are earlier still. The Gospels we have considered and others like proto Matthew (M) and proto Luke (L), were written in Greek, but there were some traditions originally in Aramaic, the language of Jesus and his first disciples, traditions that date to the earliest years of Christianity, before it expanded into the Greek speaking Mediterranean world. The evidence for this is that several passages, words or phrases are still in the original Aramaic, which the author has to translate for his audience (we see this in Mark 5, where Jesus raises a young girl from the dead, saying, “Talitha cumi” meaning, “Little girl, arise.” Again, at the end of Mark (15:34) when Jesus is on the cross, he cries out to God, “Eloi, eloi, lama sabachthani” which is also translated for Mark’s readers as, “my God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” John too, includes a number of Aramaic words (see for instance John 1:35–52).

The overwhelming conclusion then, must be that whatever else we may or may not be able to say about Jesus’ activities, teaching, birth, life and death, we can be certain that Jesus of Nazareth existed.

Breakthrough to God

The Death of God

So, the real problem for classical theism, the thing which, as much as anything else, led to the death of its God, is the problem of evil, not that evil exists, but the problem that the God of Classical Theism not only permits the existence of evil, but that evil itself is inseparable from that model of God. It is fatally flawed. Pain, suffering and evil are so intrinsically part of his plans, his purposes and his methods, so deeply entrenched in his very being, that they find their origin in him. It is not simply that evil has a shadowy, negative existence as that mental image which God set his face against and did not choose in creation, so that in speaking light into existence, that creative word spoken, implied, negatively within it that which was not chosen, that which was not light, and that in creating things he esteemed to be good, he gave a shadow existence to that which he would esteem to be not good, but rather, that his act of creation includes both good and evil. The same God who made Adam, made the serpent and he who called angels into being, also called into being Satan. If we push back against the assertions of Classical Theism, not only the myth, but the theology turns to dust.

If then, we reject classical theism as fatally flawed and with it all religion as but human invention, human construct, human interpretation, if we try to put ourselves in the footprints of our early human ancestors who, before the development of religion with its prescribed rituals, its given dogmas and its priestly caste, stood in awe and wonder as they encountered the great mystery at the heart of the universe, we find that we struggle to try to think and feel as they did. For the world has moved on and even to unthink what has been long accepted means starting with the categories we have been given. Even Atheism, implies the Theism it denies. Where the early humans faced incomprehensible mystery, the numen, we struggle to disinvest it of a bundle of concepts, such things as omnipotence, omnipresence, omniscience, and moral perfection. Where our Neolithic forebears encountered the transcendent wholly other, we automatically think of it as God, a being, albeit the ultimate being, of it having personality, of it being like us at our best writ large. Yet these are the very things that are incompatible with the modern world, the things which have led the New Atheists to proclaim that God is a delusion.


Classical Theism developed against the background of the Judaeo- Christian tradition (it is, in fact a synthesis of this with the categories of Greek philosophy) which assumes God to be an agent who realises his purposes in history. To use a metaphor, and talk of God is always necessarily by way of metaphor and analogy, humans achieve their purposes (an activity of their mind) through the actions of their bodies and when the numen was anthropomorphised and God made in our image, he was viewed as having a mind like ours, purposing, choosing, determining and, in some way too, he is seen as acting as we do to achieve those purposes through the natural world, albeit often through the manipulation or imperious suspension of its physical laws. This model, simple both to understand and to relate to, rich in liturgical imagery, though fraught with inconsistencies, has served for millennia. For most Christians, God is a spirit and has a spiritual body, but a body nonetheless, which enables him to speak and see and hear and handle, even if analogously. For some believers though, the physical world is, as it were, something akin to the body of God. God acts through the physical world to achieve his end, as we act, using our bodies to achieve ours. This understanding of God has the great advantage of identifying God’s actions with natural, physical processes, but the difficulty with this model, is that, because God’s actions are synonymous with natural processes, it becomes difficult, if not impossible, to distinguish God’s action from evolution.

Pantheists take this a step further and identify the tangible universe with God’s actual body in a literal sense. The natural world, the universe itself, is divine. Pantheism emphatically affirms God’s immanence but effectively denies God’s transcendence. God is present in, and coextensive with, everything, but is not more than everything. The world we see, the world we experience, is God (which has profound implications for our response to our environment and the ecological crisis). But if everything is God, then nothing is God. If God is identified fully with the universe and acts only through its natural, physical processes, then there is nothing to distinguish God from nature, and “God” becomes a redundant word and an obsolete concept. We may simply say nature and mean no more by it than the physical world. But we need to ask, if God is no more than the physical world we inhabit, would our Neolithic ancestors have even noticed the numenous, let alone be gripped by awe of it?

A Different View of God

There is, however, another possibility. Panentheism affirms both the transcendence of God (God’s otherness, above and beyond us) as well as God’s immanence (God’s presence here with and within us). God is not simply identified with the sum total of things, as with Pantheism, rather, God is more than everything, even as God is present everywhere. God is both all around us and yet within us, and we are within God. God is the environment we and all things inhabit and yet God also permeates all things. It is what John Macquarrie, the Anglican theologian, describes as “dialectical theism”, combining in one, two apparent opposites:

(i) God as “beyond”, the transcendent, inspiring awe and wonder, a sense of our being part of the created world, rather than distinct from it, a deep sense of dependency, even of contingency, and

(ii) God as “here”, flowing through us and through all things, empowering, energising and enabling. God is both present in every part of the universe and yet is more than the universe.

This certainly answers the intellectual problem of classical (supernatural) theism for, if God is not thought of as a being that is separate from the universe, then many of the arguments of the new atheists vanish.

In Hinduism, Brahman is the word used for the ultimate reality, the pervasive, genderless, infinite, eternal, binding unity behind the diversity of all that exists. The Upanishads, describe Brahman as the unchanging, permanent, highest reality. It is discussed in Hindu texts with the concept of Atman (the soul), viewed as being everywhere and in everything, so that there is a connected spiritual oneness in all existence. The many gods of Hinduism, with which we are all familiar, while having distinct and complex personalities and rich mythologies, are generally viewed as aspects of the same Ultimate Reality, Brahman. While this is not identical to the concept of panentheism, it may serve to illustrate the relationship between God in panentheistic thought and the God of popular thought. If what we have traditionally thought of as God, is God, then what panentheists think of as God, is, perhaps, best described as the God beyond God. Perhaps, more correctly, what panentheists mean by God, is the reality behind and beyond what has been traditionally thought of (and worshipped as) God, the latter being a pious accommodation.

But there are other reasons for considering panentheism

1) The language, both of the Bible and the of worship, because of the intimate, personal nature of the relationship with God, naturally personifes God.

This is not a problem unless we literalise it, in which case it becomes an intellectual obstacle. But the Bible also speaks of God as “here” and not merely as “out there.” It speaks of the glory of God (שכ’וה Shekinah, δοξα doxa) that is to say, the radiance of God. Psalm 19:1-6, “The heavens declare the glory of God …” Psalm 29:3-10 describing the glory of God in terms of the roar and crash of breakers out at sea and the violent cacophony of a thunderstorm: “The voice of the LORD is heard on the seas; the glorious God thunders, and his voice echoes over the ocean. The voice of the LORD is heard in all its might and majesty. The voice of the LORD breaks the cedars, even the cedars of Lebanon. He makes the mountains of Lebanon jump like calves and makes Mount Hermon leap like a young bull. The voice of the LORD makes the lightning flash. His voice makes the desert shake; he shakes the desert of Kadesh. The LORD’s voice shakes the oaks and strips the leaves from the trees while everyone in his Temple shouts, ‘Glory to God’! The LORD rules over the deep waters; he rules as king forever.”

In the New Testament, the gospel of John speaks of Jesus as being filled with the glory of God, “And we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth”, while Paul, in 2 Corinthians 4:6 writes, “For it is the God who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.” This glory, the presence of God, is encountered here, in this world.

But the Bible also speaks of God as a reality all around us. So, Psalm 139: “You have searched me and known me; you know when I sit down and when I rise up…. You go before me and behind me, and lay your hand upon me…. Where can I go from your Spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there. If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast.” The writer, in his imagination, travels throughout the whole of the (triple decker) universe: the heavens, the earth, and the underworld (שאול Sheol) that was believed in Old Testament times to be the totality of the cosmos, but is driven to acknowledge that there is nowhere in all of that reality that God is not present. God is the environment in which we live. Indeed, in a speech put in the mouth of Paul in Athens, the author of Acts, has the apostle Paul describing this aspect of the reality of God in these words: “In God we live and move and have our being.” Although it is unlikely that Paul actually spoke these words, (historical speeches were generally made up by the historians if the ancient world, to summarise dramatically what an historical figure might have said) nevertheless they encapsulate what the author believed to be Paul’s thought. We are in God: we live and move and have our being in God. God is not simply “up in heaven”, where Jesus was pictured as having ascended to and where, in the vision at his martyrdom, Stephen saw God to be, but also as being right here, right now, the all-encompassing Spirit surrounding us, in whom we are, as fish are in water.

Other biblical texts speak of “knowing” God, not in a Western, purely intellectual, sense, but in a direct, Hebrew sense, like that experienced by lovers. ידע (“To know”), the word for sexual intercourse is the same word used to speak of knowing God. Hosea denounced the people of his day for not knowing God. Clearly, they knew of God for they worshipped him; what they profoundly lacked, however, was intimacy with God. The writer of the gospel of John, that most mystical of gospels, echoes this criticism and stipulated that it is this intimacy with God that is the source of eternal life (“This is eternal life: to know God.”) as an experienced, present reality, rather than simply a future one to be experienced after physical death as in popular Christian thought.

2) The second reason for thinking about God in this way is the experience of the sacred.

If the numinous, if God, can be experienced, in other words, if the testimony of mystics to ecstatic experience has credibility, then God is not somewhere else, but is right here with us. William James, Rudolf Otto and Mircea Eliade wrote of these experiences of the numinous. Eliade used, “hierophanies” (manifestations of the sacred) and “theophanies” (manifestations of the sacred as God). They are, according to those who have experienced them, instances when reality is experienced as being “more” than the visible, tangible, everyday world of our normal experience. They are mystical or ecstatic (literally “out of the (natural) state of being” – εκ = out, στάσις = state) in which another dimension of reality is encountered and experienced. Importantly, they have what is called a “noetic” quality them. Those who experience them speak of “knowing”, not simply “feeling”. These experiences are not peculiar to Christianity, nor even, to religious experience, and have occurred throughout history (Moses’ burning bush, the enlightenment of the Buddha, the baptism of Jesus, Muhammad’s night journey, the experiences of shamans and of the dreamtime; perhaps, even near-death experiences). But they are not restricted to founders, prophets and ascetics, many ordinary people have these experiences too. I, personally, had such an experience while travelling in the Irish Republic 25 years ago, which remains as vivid and powerful as the day I experienced it.

Mysticism is a form of religion which places an emphasis on the immediate (in the sense of not mediated) awareness and experience of, and relation to God, or the universe or Spirit, or however else we may choose to describe the numinous. We are familiar with the stories of Jacob’s ladder, the visions of the prophets such as first Isaiah, Ezekiel and Daniel, the “still, small voice” of Elijah and Paul’s Damascus road experience. Perhaps too, we may include Augustine’s experience in the apple orchard, Luther’s thunderstorm, Wesley’s strangely warmed heart, Teresa of Avila’s ascent of the soul, and the unspeakable experience of Thomas Aquinas that put an end to his writing. But there are many, many more.

Wordsworth wrote:
” … and I have felt
A presence that disturbs me with the joy
Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime
Of something far more deeply interfused,
Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,
And the round ocean and the living air,
And the blue sky, and in the mind of man:
A motion and a spirit, that impels
All thinking things, all objects of all thought,
And rolls through all things…”
(Tintern Abbey)

– The Hindu, Rabindranath Tagore, wrote, “I found the world bathed in a wonderful radiance with waves of beauty and joy swelling on every side, and no person or thing in the world seemed to me trivial or unpleasing.”

– Similarly, the philosopher and mathematician, Blaise Pascal wrote, “In the year of grace 1654, Monday 23rd November, from about half-past ten in the evening till about half an hour after midnight: FIRE. God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob. Not of the philosophers and the learned. Certitude. Certitude. Emotion. Joy! Joy! Joy! Joy! Tears of Joy! My God…let me not be separated from thee for ever.”

– Theologian, Leslie Weatherhead, too, describes his mystical experience of God in the most mundane of circumstances. “It happened on a murky November Saturday evening in a third-class compartment on a train leaving London: For a few seconds only, I suppose, the whole compartment was filled with light. This is the only way I know in which to describe the moment, for there was nothing to see at all. I felt caught up into some tremendous sense of being within a loving, triumphant and shining purpose. I never felt more humble. I never felt more exalted. A most curious, but overwhelming sense possessed me and filled me with ecstasy. All men were shining and glorious beings who in the end would enter incredible joy. An indescribable joy possessed me. All this happened over fifty years ago but even now I can see myself in the corner of that dingy third-class compartment with the feeble lights of inverted gas mantles overhead and the Vauxhall Station platform outside with milk cans standing there. In a few moments the glory departed—all but one curious, lingering feeling. I loved everybody in that compartment. It sounds silly now, and indeed I blush to write it, but at that moment I think I would have died for any one of the people in that compartment.”

– Then, of course, there is the contemporary experience of Marcus Borg. Borg was on a transatlantic flight when suddenly the light in the plane assumed a golden glow. To Borg, everything—the fabric of the seats, the trays of food, the other passengers—became exquisitely beautiful. “Everything was glorious,” Borg wrote, “filled with glory.” For Borg, such mystical experiences underscored his move away from the supernatural theism of his Lutheran childhood and toward panentheism. This was a move away from the question of whether God “exists” and toward a quest to understand the “is-ness” of the “radiant and glorious more” that suffuses life.

This is why religious experience is the most profound reason for believing in God. It is a powerful experience of something absolutely, undeniably real, utterly certain, profoundly life changing. Yet as a clinical, detached and purely philosophical “argument for the existence of God” to be analysed and dissected, religious experience is as sterile and hollow, and unconvincing as any other. But these experiences suggest that there is more than the mundane reality we experience every day, more than one level of reality and that this alternative dimension may be experienced, yet they do not prove the reality of God. That said, the evidence of religious experience is far more interesting and compelling. These experiences suggest that reality itself may be much more mysterious than we otherwise understand it to be.

The certainty that the mystical experience of God provides us with as to the reality of God, does not come from intellectual argument, or from logic or ontology, not yet by way of unfounded assertions or assumptions, it comes from an immediate experience of being overwhelmed by the presence of God which gives us the certainty of God’s existence. We may not be able to break God’s essence down as the scholastics did, nor make a compelling, rational argument, proving God’s existence, but that which may be shown to exist, explained, measured and quantified is less than the numinous other, is less than God. It is in this mystical experience of the Spirit, the encounter with the mystery at the heart of reality, the life-breath, heartbeat and soul of the universe, the ineffable ground of being, that we find ourselves standing in our Neolithic forebears footprints, gazing out at the awe-inspiring numen.

Thomas Merton wrote, “Life is this simple. We are living in a world that is absolutely transparent, and God is shining through it all the time. This is not just a fable or a nice story. It is true. If we abandon ourselves to God and forget ourselves, we see it sometimes, and we see it maybe frequently. God shows Himself everywhere, in everything—in people and in things and in nature and in events.”

In The End, God?

“From that room … the daylight was completely excluded, and it had
an airless smell that was oppressive. A fire had been lately kindled in
the damp old-fashioned grate, and it was more disposed to go out than
to burn up, and the reluctant smoke which hung in the room seemed colder than the clearer air – like our own marsh mist. Certain wintry branches of candles on the high chimneypiece faintly lighted the chamber: or, it would be more expressive to say, faintly troubled its darkness. It was spacious, and I dare say had once been handsome, but every discernible thing in it was covered with dust and mould, and dropping to pieces. The most prominent object was a long table with a tablecloth spread on it,
as if a feast had been in preparation when the house and the clocks all
stopped together. An epergne or centrepiece of some kind was in the
middle of this cloth; it was so heavily overhung with cobwebs that its
form was quite undistinguishable; and, as I looked along the yellow
expanse out of which I remember its seeming to grow, like a black
fungus, I saw speckled-legged spiders with blotchy bodies running home
to it, and running out from it, as if some circumstances of the greatest
public importance had just transpired in the spider community.

I heard the mice too, rattling behind the panels, as if the same
occurrence were important to their interests. But, the blackbeetles took
no notice of the agitation, and groped about the hearth in a ponderous
elderly way, as if they were short-sighted and hard of hearing, and not on terms with one another.

These crawling things had fascinated my attention and I was watching the from a distance, when Miss Havisham
laid a hand upon my shoulder. In her other hand she had a crutch-headed
stick on which she leaned, and she looked like the Witch of the place.

“This,” said she, pointing to the long table with her stick, “is where I will
be laid when I am dead. They shall come and look at me here.”

With some vague misgiving that she might get upon the table then and there and die at once, the complete realization of the ghastly waxwork at the Fair, I shrank under her touch.

“What do you think that is?” she asked me, again pointing with her stick; “that, where those cobwebs are?”

“I can’t guess what it is, ma’am.”

“It’s a great cake. A bride-cake. My cake”

– Great Expectations, Charles Dickens, first published 1843

Miss Havisham’s Cake

The God of Classical Theism is dead, but conservative Christians cannot let him go. Modern Fundamentalism (and Fundamentalism is modern, even though it claims to be the pure, unsullied belief of authentic, primitive Christianity) is trapped in hysterical denial, the pathological mourning of a grief-stricken widower, or a jilted bride, which, like Dickens’ Miss Havisham, is an eerie, somewhat ridiculous, embarrassment to Christianity: a caricature of what it had once believed, before the new knowledge of the Enlightenment, before the discoveries of science, of archaeology, of paleontology, and of history. Before the appreciation of the literary forms employed in the Bible, before our exposure to the thoughts and forms and beliefs and practices other religions, both from antiquity and in the contemporary world. Christianity has encountered all this and grown, and developed, and moved on, while the Fundamentalist, traumatised and fearful of change, has Miss Havisham-like, stopped the clocks and allowed cobwebs to gather on the feast, content to live with fading glory and to walk, interminably around the table.

Fundamentalism sees itself in heroic terms, either as a defiant, rearguard action, like that of Sparta’s 300, holding the pass against the onslaught of the modern world, or like Hans Brinker’s little Dutch boy who plugged the hole in the leaking dike with his finger, thereby saving Haarlem, or even, in more Biblical terms, as the dwindling, faithful remnant.

Neo Calvinism

The forms this defiance takes varies from the populist denial of science and the modern worldview, the work of the Creationists, vainly imploring that black is really white. The academic equivalent of putting one’s fingers in one’s ears and chanting “la, la, la” to drown out reality, to the work of the neo-Calvinists whose rising tide is engulfing modern fundamentalist theology and apologetics: writers such as Wayne Grudem, John MacArthur, Millard Erickson, John Piper, RC Sproul, Jerry Falwell, Vern Poythress and Albert Mohler. Typical of these writers is Robert Reymond. In his New Systematic Theology of the Christian Faith, he reworks the old Calvinist TULIP (Total Depravity, Unconditional Election, Limited Atonement, Irresistible Grace, and Final Perseverance) along the lines suggested by Calvin’s successor in Geneva, Theodore Beza, and others such as William Whitaker and William Perkins in the late 16th and early 17th century Church of England, Franciscus Gomarus and Gisbertus Voetius in the 17th century Netherlands, William Twisse, the first prolocutor of the Westminster Assembly of 1643, and, in more recent times, Geerhardus Vos, 1862-1949. Essentially what he has done (a theological position known as “supralapsarianism”) is to move the T of Total Depravity (the Evangelical belief that with the sin of Adam (necessarily seen as an historical figure, rather than a mythological character), humanity “fell” into bondage to sin, and that as the progenitor of the human race, he infected all his descendants in the same way) and replace it with the U of unconditional election. In other words, rather than God creating the world, humans sinning and God then devising a rescue plan to redeem those who would believe in the merits of Jesus’ death on the cross, as a sacrifice for sin (which Reymond argues puts God on the back foot, having to respond to the initiative of Adam in sinning and of believers in the act of believing), Reymond’s model has God choosing to create specific humans who are predetermined to choose adore him for eternity (Election) and specific others who are predetermined not choose this and so will be damned for all eternity (even though this is all entirely God’s sovereign purpose), indeed, they are predetermined to be completely unable to choose to do anything other than reject him, this God then orchestrates everything else to this end: creation, Adam’s sin, the “Fall”, a world characterised by evil, pain, suffering and death, Christ’s sacrificial death and, ultimately to the eternal salvation of some and the eternal damnation of the vast majority. God chooses all this before the dawn of creation. That this might sound offensive to most people, even to many of the Evangelical rank and file, is fully accepted by Reymond and the neo-Calvinists that make up the increasing majority of Fundamentalist writers, but is seen by them as yet further evidence of the sinful, rebellious nature of a humanity, that simply will not accept that God knows best, and questions his purposes, actions and character.

This are softer, less stark versions of this theology of course, versions which seek to exonerate God, which seek to present a gentler, kinder image of him, but these, as Reymond shows in his theology (op cit) are fraught with their own internal contradictions. For instance, by making the sin of Adam the cause of God’s plan of salvation, rather than God’s sovereign decision (however cruel and heartless that decision may be) we actually create a God who lacks omniscience and needs must react to human initiative. This clueless God, who is surprised by sin, at least gives humans their free will and dignity so that they freely choose to love and serve him, by repenting of their sin and accepting his gracious offer of salvation. But that makes humans sovereign, rather than God. We choose to sin, we choose to repent and be saved. But all this leaves us with a reactive God, rather than an omniscient one and, leaving aside the means by which this God achieves his purpose, which such as Steve Chalke have rightly characterised as cosmic child abuse, we are forced to ask ourselves, if this genial, but bumbling God did not anticipate something so significant as sin, what else in our future might he not have anticipated? How certain is his plan? How certain is our salvation? If we strive to save God’s omniscience by asserting that he knew that humans would sin, we create an impotent God who, despite his best intentions, could not avoid sin entering the equation. If we push back further and say that God allowed the possibility of sin, knowing that humans would choose to embrace it and so fall, but that his ultimate purpose was to use sin and suffering and evil and redemption to create a being that would choose to worship and serve him, then we are back with Reymond’s sovereign God, but without the clarity that he brings to argument. We shy away from the stark obscenity of God’s sovereignty, preferring an all too human anguished decision where God, like us, finds himself on the horns of a dilemma of his own making, whether to act out of Justice or out of Mercy. Whichever of these models we choose to work with, we find ourselves with a frail and compromised God, not the Almighty one we address in our worship.

The bitter and elitist gospel of the neo-Calvinists, which most assuredly is not good news (ευαγγελιον = good news/gospel) whether Reymond’s stark, uncompromising, obscene sovereignty or some fudged variant that hides the taste of bitter medicine beneath a sugary coating, is Fundamentalism’s rearguard action, but the God of Classical Theism that they seek to defend is dead, and what they perceive as proof of life is no more than the twitching of his corpse.

Is God Dead?

And yet is God dead? Or is what we mourn, the passing, not of God, but of a comforting idol that was erected for us by the first priests when they arose in the Neolithic period, as humans settled in communities, became socialised, domesticated and subservient to their newly emerging clan chieftains, warlords and kings – a process increasingly refined over the following millenia, changing and developing and adapting to meet every challenge to its authority, and that of the hierarchies whose rule it supported, until it finally collapsed under the weight of its own dogma? Is it that idol, the subversion of humanity’s primal impulse to reach out to the indefinable numen it experienced, that has died? Is it religion that has died, while human spirituality, long supressed by it, is finally re-emerging? Is it that what we may call God, or Goddess, or the Universe, or Gaia, or Spirit or the Divine or whatever else we may choose, is finally shaking off the shell we constructed for it, so that human beings are once again open to experience it, to encounter it, and to engage with it, without imposed ritual or doctrine? Is it the case that we made God in our own image and that, as we have come to know and understand ourselves better, we have come to realise that we most certainly are not gods, and that the God we created in our image, a father projected onto the screen of eternity, simply will not do. Is it that we have come to realise that there is, nonetheless, something that we encounter as the ultimate “Thou”, to our deeply personal “I”, the beyond in our midst, the transcendent, yet always imminent other, which we must acknowledge and accommodate, which is far different than we had ever imagined, and is at once both more powerful and more empowering?

The Train Wreck of Theism

Yesterday, upon the stair,
I met a man who wasn’t there
He wasn’t there again today
I wish, I wish he’d go away. – Hughes Mearns

Religious experience may be a strong indication of the reality of what we may call God, but the philosophical argument from religious experience comes to grief between a rock and a hard place, the one scientific, the other a point of logic.

The Rock

The God of Classical Theism is, in the end, a synthetic God, an almagm of the Biblical God (anthropomorphic, deeply personal, both for good and ill, and highly interventionist) with the Greek philosophical abstract concept of an impersonal, ultimate being. It is an unstable construction, yet it has held uneasily together for the best part of 2000 years. The challenge of science fractures this synthesis, fatally impacting the Biblical, interventionist God, and driving the philosopher’s abstract concept into the shadowy half-life of Deism.

The challenge of science is not, as might be at first imagined, the challenge of evolution, with which Fundamentalism has been futilely grappling for close on 200 years, nor yet is it the, more modern, challenges of Relativity, Quantum Mechanics or A.I., let alone such things as String Theory or Chaos Theory, which it has yet to consider, but rather, something much more fundamental: the challenge to the Christian (and the Jewish and the Muslim) belief, that God acts in the world, to answer prayer, to work miracles, to suspend natural, physical laws, to provide providential guidance and to determine events other than through the long chain of cause and effect. Christian (and Jewish and Muslim) faith has ordinarily believed that God has interacted, and continues to interact, with the world in these ways, at least from time to time, both in order to preserve it and, when necessary, to alter its course. Science has usually claimed that on the macro level, the level of human knowledge, experience and observation, events are determined by natural laws, no matter what interpretation we may choose to read into those events. This entails the conviction that all macro level events may, at least in principle, be thoroughly explained by reference to natural causal principles, one of the most important of which is the law of the conservation of energy. This law states that, in a closed system, the total amount of energy must remain the same. It may change form, but it cannot be created or destroyed. That being so, how can God be said to act in the world, as any divine action within the cosmos would violate this law by being an illicit addition of energy? We cannot resort to Aquinas’ pre-scientific argument of primary and secondary causality, with God acting through natural processes, because for this statement to have any meaning whatsoever, we would have to be able to state what would happen differently if God were not intervening. As things follow a regular pattern, God cannot be said to either intervene or to not intervene, so the statement is without meaning.

The only possible chink of light seems to come from Chaos Theory, but it is only a mere chink, and not a solution.

There is in chaotic systems an apparent openness or indeterminacy, so that the ordinary causal principles at work, the interchange of energy between the isolable constituent parts of a physical system, do not seem to wholly determine the future of the system. Two chaotic systems that are at one point virtually identical to each other may end up vastly different. This, of course, indicates that there is another causal influence active, which is, as yet, unidentified. John Polkinghorne, Professor of Mathematical Physics at Cambridge University, and an Anglican priest, has suggested that this additional influence does not add energy, but information to the system and, as such, provides a means for God to operate as an informational causality that does not violate the law of the conservation of energy.

However, there is a fatal flaw in Polkinghorne’s thesis in that he all too rapidly moves from epistemology to ontology, claiming that our current inability to predict, in detail, the future states of chaotic systems is, in fact, a function of a genuine indeterminacy within the system. In fact in claiming this, he is revealing his bias and attempting to create a gap for God to exploit. The problem, however, with a “God of the gaps” is, as history shows, that the gaps in scientific knowledge are filled in time, and God is, once again, squeezed out. In this case even other Christians, active in Polkinghorne’s field, do not share his view, but rather hold the more natural theory that chaotic systems are entirely deterministic and that our inability to accurately predict their future lies not in our failure to see God at work, supplying something extra in terms of information, but simply in them being too complicated and too sensitive for us to measure at present – an example of small changes producing large effects. Furthermore, the number of truly chaotic systems in nature are far, far fewer than was once thought to be the case, leaving God very little opportunity for intervention. Indeed, even if Polkinghorne was correct in his thesis, and even if the number of chaotic systems was far greater so as to be commonplace and so to afford God ample opportunity to intervene in the cosmos, it still begs the question, to whom or what would information be conveyed, and how would it be conveyed without energy?

Without the ability to intervene in miracle and in answer to prayer: to still the storm, walk upon the water, multiply the loaves, raise the dead, part the waves and make the sun stand still, the God of the Bible is dead and the God of the philosophers, shuffles off into the dark recesses of Deism, a God who may, in some sense have set things going, but has long since lost all interest in the project. If the God of Classical Theism was our only option, we would have to agree with Richard Dawkins: God is no more than a delusion.

The Hard Place

The other fatal problem for Classical Theism may be summed up simply:

  1. If the God of Classical Theism exists, then that God is, necessarily, omnipotent, omniscient, and morally perfect.
  2. If God is omnipotent, then God must have the power to eliminate all evil.
  3. If God is omniscient, then God clearly knows that evil exists.
  4. If God is morally perfect, then God has the desire to eliminate evil, since evil is the complete antithesis of moral perfection, mars God’s creation and causes pain and suffering.
  5. Evil clearly exists – we see it on TV, we read about it in the papers – it is an everyday fact of life to one degree or another.
  6. So, if evil exists (as we know that it does) and God exists (which is what the Classical Theist wants to argue), then either God is not omnipotent – as God does not have the power to eliminate all evil – or God is not omniscient – as God does not know that evil exists – or God is not morally perfect – as God does not desire to eliminate evil.
  7. Given that the Classical Theist asserts all three perfections of God (omnipotence, omniscience, and moral perfection), God cannot exist.

It is actually a problem as old as the book of Job and it is not entirely true to say that it is a fatal problem as the issue has been wrestled with for millennia and the branch of theology and philosophy termed theodicy is devoted to exonerating God. However, this solution to the problem is to say that while God is both all loving and all powerful, he, for his own inscrutable purposes, chooses to allow the existence of evil for other ends.

The problem of evil then, is the problem of reconciling belief in an omniscient, omnipotent, and benevolent God, with the obvious existence of evil and suffering. The problem may be described either experientially or theoretically. Experientially the problem is the difficulty in believing in a loving God in the face of suffering and evil such as pandemics, famine, drought, wars, murders, rapes, child sexual abuse and terror attacks in which innocent children, women and men become victims. Theoretically the problem is both logical and evidential.

Originating with Epicurus, the logical argument has been expressed as:

  1. If an omnipotent, omniscient and benevolent God exists, then evil cannot.
  2. Evil exists.
  3. Therefore, an omnipotent, omniscient and benevolent God
    does not exist.

This argument is logically valid and, if its premises are true, the conclusion follows of necessity.

Most philosophical debate has focused on the proposition that God cannot coexist with evil, with defenders of theism such as Leibniz and Plantigna arguing that God can not only exist with, but actually allow evil, if his purpose was to achieve a greater good. This greater good generally being theorised to be to allow fully autonomous human beings to exercise free will. It is far from clear exactly when evolving homonids began to exercise free will, but it was long after the advent of evil and suffering by several million years. While the concept of omnipotence certainly does not include God being able to achieve the logically impossible (to create a square circle, or a rock to heavy for him to lift, or a being greater than himself), are we really to believe that he could not have arranged circumstances in which this one species amongst all animal life is able to exercise free will – if, indeed, we really do have free will – without the allowing the existence of evil?

The purely intellectual puzzle that is the “logical problem”, however, is as nothing compared with the real world contemplation of evil in the “evidential problem”. William Rowe gives the following example: “In some distant forest lightning strikes a dead tree, resulting in a forest fire. In the fire a fawn is trapped, horribly burned, and lies in terrible agony for several days before death relieves its suffering.” Rowe similarly cites the example of an innocent child who suffers as the victim of violence. The evidential problem of evil demonstrates that the existence of evil and suffering, particularly inocent suffering, lowers the probability of the existence of God to almost zero and what is left, when all is said and done, is but a hollow shell.

Rowe’s thesis then is this:

1. There exist instances of intense suffering which an omnipotent, omniscient and morally perfect being could have prevented without thereby losing some greater good or permitting some evil equally bad or worse.

2. An omniscient, morally perfect being would prevent the occurrence of any intense suffering it could, unless it could not do so without thereby losing some greater good or permitting some evil equally bad or worse.

3. Therefore there does not exist an omnipotent, omniscient, morally perfect being.

“There does not exist an omnipotent, omniscient, morally perfect being” for, if there did, the real theological question would not be, why does God permit evil, but is evil itself inseparable from God? Between the rock and the hard place this being, the God of classical theism is wrecked. There is nothing left to salvage. Despite anguished apologetics from conservatives (Catholic, Evangelical and Fundamentalist) in denial, and despite his distasteful smugness and “preachy” tone, Dawkins is right: God is a delusion … or, rather, that particular model of God, the synthetic God of classical theism, is a delusion.

‘the sufferings of millions of the lower animals throughout almost endless time’ are apparently irreconcilable with the existence of a creator of ‘unbounded’ goodness.

— Charles Darwin, 1856

The Dawn of Religion

The Neolithic Revolution

Around 12,000 years ago, after about 65,000 years of the middle stone age, a huge revolution took place, ushering in the Neolithic era, the “New Stone Age”, marking a complete break for most humans from what had gone before. The most obvious aspect of this was the move from a hunter-gatherer, nomadic lifestyle, following the movement of livestock and living in caves and rock shelters, to a settled agrarian lifestyle, living in permanent communities, planting crops and domesticating animals. Quite what triggered this change is a matter of debate amongst academics, but it led to the growth and proliferation of humans in 10,000 years from a world population of around 5 million to one of 7 billion. It has been quite rightly dubbed the “Neolithic Revolution.” The traditional hunter-gatherer lifestyle, followed by humans since their earliest evolution, was swept aside in favour of permanent settlements and a reliable food supply and out of these agricultural communities, cities and civilisations grew.

There was no single factor, or combination of factors, that led people to take up farming in different parts of the world. In the Near East, for example, it is thought that climate change at the end of the last ice age brought seasonal conditions that favoured annual plants like wild cereals. Elsewhere, such as in East Asia, increased pressure on natural food resources may have forced people to find homegrown solutions. But whatever the reasons for its independent origins, farming sowed the seeds for the modern age.

The wild progenitors of crops including wheat, barley, and peas are traced to the Near East region. Cereals were grown in Syria as long as 9,000 years ago, while figs were cultivated even earlier; prehistoric seedless fruits discovered in the Jordan Valley suggest fig trees were being planted some 11,300 years ago. Though the transition from wild harvesting was gradual, the switch from a nomadic to a settled way of life is marked by the appearance of early Neolithic villages with homes equipped with grinding stones for processing grain.

The origins of rice and millet farming date to the same Neolithic period in China. The world’s oldest known paddy fields, discovered in 2007, reveal evidence of ancient cultivation techniques such as flood and fire control.

Cattle, goats, sheep, and pigs all have their origins as farmed animals in the “Fertile Crescent”, a region covering eastern Turkey, Iraq, and southwestern Iran. This region was the birthplace of the Neolithic Revolution and dates for the domestication of these animals range from between 13,000 to 10,000 years ago.

Genetic studies show that goats and other livestock accompanied the westward spread of agriculture into Europe, helping to revolutionise Stone Age society there. It is far from clear to what extent the farmers themselves migrated west, but the dramatic impact of dairy farming on Europeans is in their DNA. Prior to the arrival of domesticated cattle in Europe, prehistoric populations were not able to process raw cow’s milk, but at some point during the spread of farming into southeastern Europe, a mutation occurred creating lactose tolerance that increased in frequency through natural selection due to the nutritious benefits of milk. If we consider the prevalence of the milk-drinking gene in Europeans today, which is as high as 90 percent in the populations of northern countries, the vast majority are descended from cow herders.

There were other changes too: clothing was still frequently made from animal skins, but bone needles meant that the clothing was increasingly tailored and more sophisticated, furthermore wool and flax began to be woven and sewn. Tools and weapons were also increasingly sophisticated, a greater variety of game was hunted, art and ornamentation all became more elaborate, but above all the settled communities began to develop new structures, becoming more hierarchical, developing specialist trades and ruling elites and becoming patriarchal in the process. This latter point may have be due to the need to defend settled territories in a way that had not been true when homo sapiens was a nomadic hunter-gatherer. Defence required combat skills which, until the development of military technology in more modern times, relied primarily on physical force and, therefore, on the whole, favoured males. Settling in community also led to another significant change, the move from spirituality – which is essentially individualistic and personal, to religion – which is corporate and communal. We see this evidenced by the development of megaliths and circle structures, the latter demonstrating a clear link to the lunisolar calendar, being aligned with sunrise and sunset at the solstices. Some of these reveal the remains of feasts and sacrifices, even, in the case of such as the Goseck Circle in Saxony, of human sacrifices.

The Development of Religion

Quite what the religion of the Neolithic era consisted of is a matter of conjecture. The earlier spirituality had been shamanistic, the later religion of the Bronze Age, was focussed on specific deities who formed a pantheon, as we can see from the inscriptions and literature they left behind. However, during the Neolithic period there are no literary remains and the artifacts are open to interpretation. There are suddenly a vast number of Venus figurines, there are also bulls and what are thought to be sun-chariots. What may have been happening at this time is the personification of the numinous and its differentiation as both a male and female principle in reciprocity, a god and a goddess, just as humans and animals are differentiated into male and female.

Certainly this is the case with the early pantheons. In the proto-Semitic, for instance, we have ‘ilu (male) and ‘ilatu (female), the high god and goddess, ‘Attaru (male) and ‘Attartu (female), the fertility god and goddess, Samsu (the sun goddess) and Warihu (the moon god) and so on. Reading this back into the finds from the Neolithic era, the proliferation of Venus figurines probably represent the goddess who has been personified from the earlier, more magical, focus on female fertility (represented abstractly by the sex organs: breasts, hips and vulva), while the bulls probably represent the god, by expressing unbridled power, physical strength and virility. The solar chariots meanwhile link to the sun and to the solstices, festivals and timings for planting, lambing, harvesting and so on. Quite why the mysterious numen, which is intuited and felt, rather than formulated, is characterised by an unfocussed sense of awe and an at-oneness with nature such as we see in, say, Australian aboriginal spirituality, should develop into a ritualised devotion to a personal deity is not easy to explain, although studies, like that of Guy Swanson of the University of California at Berkeley in 1960, which surveyed 50 “primitive” societies, demonstrated that such a correlation does exist between the complexity and size of a community and the likelihood that their gods will be highly developed and moralising. The development may be due to humanity’s natural tendency to personify almost everything, just as we see in animal behaviour, thoughts, motives and emotions which they are unable to form or feel, and in unusual circumstances or the coincidence of events, patterns and portents of something more. Our natural impulse toward empathy, to see as others see and to feel as others feel, to get inside the other’s mind, may cause us to project personality and purpose onto the universe itself. Or it may be that religion is potentially a powerful vehicle to manipulate, organise, control and direct the community and that, to this end, a message from the gods is a great motivator, as history has shown. Or then again, it may quite easily be both.

What we see in the Abrahamic religions, is the further development of this process.

The Judeao-Christian Tradition

During the Bronze Age, between the 10th and 7th centuries BCE, ancient Israelite and Judean religion was essentially polytheistic but with a particular devotion to one or two primary deities, a practice known as henotheism: that is, the recognition and, even, worship of many deities but with the primary worship focus revolving around a single deity. Within the Bronze Age Judean and Israelite communities, primary devotion was generally focussed on Yahweh (usually rendered “LORD” in English translations, following the Jewish practice big not speaking the divine name out of respect, but capitalised to show that it is not a translation of the word אדון = adonai, κύριος = kurios, “lord” a deferential title). Worship revolved as much around local shrines associated with the Israelites’ legendary prehistory, such as Bethel, as around the central shrine at Shiloh and later at Jerusalem. In terms of practices, sacrificial rituals like Yom Kippur, New Moon festivals, divination using the urim and thumim, and prophecy were all common.

Although the Jewish and Christians traditions suggest that Yahweh was the only deity worshipped throughout Israelite and Judean history, archaeology, inscriptions, and the even the Hebrew Bible (תנח = Tanach or “Old Testament”) itself all indicate otherwise. However, Yahweh, who may originally have been a wilderness deity, was the god principally worshipped, and was understood to be in some sense, uniquely, almost tangibly present in the Jerusalem temple in the form of his Shekinah (glory/radiance), to have a spiritual body, and to be personal, or even a person, with purposes, emotions and willpower, who communicated, judged, rewarded and punished. Furthermore, ancient Israelite and Judean religion shared the common belief that Yahweh was to be worshipped in ritual purity (holiness) and that worshippers were required to maintain the temple’s holiness in order to ensure that the deity would continue to live in its Holy of Holies. To this end, sacrifices, offerings, and liturgy were offered to him and a strict holiness code was rigidly enforced.

Before a centralised state began to take shape, people in Syria- Palestine practiced a form of family religion. Literature dating from the 12th century BCE, the Tel el Amarna letters, together with inscriptions from throughout Syria-Palestine demonstrate this to be so. The data is, however, fragmentary. In other words, it is as though we have 400 pieces of a 2,000-piece jigsaw puzzle. Yet, when we connect the puzzle with other historical sources, it becomes clear that family religion was the norm at the time Israel and Judah began forming their national identity. It is entirely possible that families honoured their ancestors in verbal rites and the presentation of offerings, certainly there is evidence that they focused their religious devotion on the ‘god of the father’ or the ‘god of the house’ (ie “the God of Abraham and the Fear (פחד = pachad) of Isaac”). In so doing, they anchored their collective identity in their lineage and place of origin This was the context, in which the proto- Israelite religion began to develop. Assuming the Hebrew Bible reflects this proto-Israelite religion, scholars believe that it shows that rituals were performed in honour of the deceased (1 Samuel 20) with a communal meal eating meat together where the entire clan was present on its inherited ancestoral land where the remains of its ancestors were buried.

Outside of the Hebrew Bible, one of the best examples of ancient Israelite and Judean religion comes from an archaeological site called Kuntillet ‘Ajrud, dating from as early as the 10th century BCE. One inscription from this site reads, “to YHWH of Samaria and to Asherata.” Another inscription reads, “To YHWH of Teman and to Asherata”. Both of these inscriptions demonstrate that some ancient Israelites and Judeans were certainly not monotheistic in their practice of their religion, but were henotheistic. YHWH (יהוה), which is read as Yahweh, was the primary tribal deity, and is best known from the Hebrew Bible. Asherata, also known as Asherah, was a deity within the Ugaritic pantheon, and is also a common figure in the Hebrew Bible. Therefore, we can confidently say that on the spectrum of how people in ancient Israel and Judah practiced religion, Asherah and Yahweh were both honoured in cults. Priority, though, tending to be given to Yahweh.

An inscription from another site (Khirbet el-Qom, 8th century BCE) reads: “Blessed is Uriahu by YHWH for through Asherata he has saved him from his enemy.” Here, we see strong evidence that Asherata, a deity, represented a person named Uriahu before Yahweh. In Ugaritic literature, we see a similar understanding of the deities. The Ugaritic goddess Athirat was a mediator for El, the chief god of the Ugaritic pantheon. The parallel in how people understood deities (Yahweh is to Asherata as El is to Athirat) demonstrates how ancient Israel and Judah shared a cultural and religious framework with the broader West Semitic culture; yet, they were also unique in the sense that they worshipped a particular deity who uniquely represented their tribal system.

Other examples may be found in the Hebrew Bible itself. In Psalm 82, for example, Yahweh stands in the council of El, the high deity of West Semitic mythology. Yahweh accuses the other deities in the council (the word Elohim (אלוהים) which is generally translated “God” in English Bibles, is actually a plural noun (gods), and is not a plural of majesty either, as some Evangelical scholars claim, but is the technical, collective noun used for the council of the gods in West Semitic culture) of not helping the poor and needy. In other words, the other deities had failed to fulfil their duties as deities. As a result, El takes away from them their divine status and commands Yahweh to rule over the nations. In this piece of poetic theatre from Judah and Israel, we have an example of a tradition in which other deities are within the pantheon and yet Yahweh takes the central role. Yet even in this piece of Yahwistic triumphalism, in which the god of Israel and Judea is pictured as supplanting the gods of the nations, he does so, not by asserting his intrinsic right over them, but is appointed to that role by s superior deity. Even in asserting Yahweh’s superiority, the writer underscores the henotheistic reality of the prevailing culture.

Narrative in the Hebrew Bible tells a similar story. In 1 Kings 16:33, King Ahab makes a shrine for Asherah. 2 Kings 17:16 refers to people who worship Asherah and Ba’al and Ba’al worship occurs consistently throughout the narrative, suggesting that this god played a large part in the belief of the Israelite population during the Iron Age.

Interestingly, one of the earliest translations of the Hebrew Bible, the Septuagint (LXX), translates Deuteronomy 32:8, “When the Most High was apportioning the nations, as he scattered Adam’s sons, he fixed the boundaries of the nations according to the number of divine sons“. Most High is a reference to El and in this verse, El is said to assign nations and people groups to his divine sons, that is, to the deities of the West Semites. In this verse, Yahweh is assigned to Israel, and other deities to other peoples. Thus, even the Hebrew Bible itself reflects the henotheism of ancient Israel.

As these inscriptions demonstrate, worship of deities other than Yahweh seems to have been a regular part of life for the people of Israel and Judea before the exile. Throughout the Hebrew Bible, Yahweh had always been presented as the deity that people ought to worship, but based on these inscriptions, and on the texts of the books of Psalms, Kings and Deuteronomy, we know this was not the practice, but that, rather, henotheism was the norm for ancient Israelites and Judeans. In other words, the Hebrew Bible does not accurately reflect how people actually practiced their religion in ancient Israel and Judea. The reason for this lies in the fact that the Hebrew Bible was substantially edited and, even in part, written, in the period spanning between, what is usually characterised as the “Reformation” under King Josiah, but in reality is better described as the”reinvention” of Judaism, following the triumph of the Yahwistic party, and the Maccabean Risorgimento. So that, although it clearly preserves narrative and poetic fragments from far earlier traditions, the theological and beliefs and practices of the post-exilic period, influenced as they were by the strong monotheism of the Zoroastrianism encountered in exile, have been read back into the nation’s psst. Israel’s monotheistic history is, therefore an example of the victors re-writing history, or rather, of inventing it.

Monotheism became the hallmark of post-exilic Judaism and is its gift to both of the other Abrahamic religions, Christianity and Islam. It is, as what we know as Classical Theism, both the understanding of God found in the Bible and the model of God championed by philosophy. However, while religious experience may be a strong indication of the reality of something we may characterise as “God” in some sense, as a philosophical argument for the existence of the God of Classical Theism, the argument from religious experience fails in the same way that all other arguments for his existence fail, by foundering on two rocks, like Charybdis and Scylla, the one scientific, the other a point of logic.