Tuesday, January 11, 2011
How Confucius proves Jesus.
The Gospels are commonly subjected to intense skepticism. In recent years, skeptics like Robert Price and Richard Carrier have claimed that not only are many of the bare facts related in the Gospels false -- but even that Jesus may have never lived.
Are the Gospels believable?
The evidence for them, I think, is historically compelling. If they did not tell about miracles, and if some scholars did not find philosophical reasons to doubt such things can happen, with the evidence in front of us in the Gospels alone, no one would think to deny the outline of Jesus' life, personality, career, teachings, teachings, death, and (yes) resurrection.
In this post I'll consider an interesting parallel, the great sage whose life and personality stand at the heart of Chinese tradition, as Jesus does in Western tradition. (My arguments are largely adapted from a chapter in my book, Why the Jesus Seminar can't find Jesus, and Grandma Marshall Could.)
The Analects of Confucius is, in some ways, quite similiar to the Gospels: a collection of sayings and anecdotes about a wandering ancient teacher, written down some time afterwards by disciples. I know of no serious China scholar who denies that Confucius lived. Few doubt that the Analects, especially the first chapters, provides a fairly accurate picture of who Confucius was, what he taught and did.
Yet as historical sources, the Gospels have many advantages over the Analects:
(1) Timing. The Gospels are probably closer in time to the main events they record. Confucius died at the age of about 70, so his early life would be much further removed from the time of his death, than was the case for Jesus.
(2) Multiple attestation. There are four Gospels, but only one Analects. A house with four pillars stands in an earthquake, when one resting on one pillar topples in a breeze!
True, scholars find a relationship between the Gospels, especially the first three "Synoptics." Probably both Matthew and Luke borrowed heavily from Mark. But both writers also relied on their own material, named by scholars (doubtless after breakfast), "Special M" and "Special L." So together with John, we still have at least four early and detailed sources for the life of Jesus, compared to just one for Confucius.
(3) Cultural specificity: H. G. Creel effectively applied the principle of what Jesus scholars call "dissimilarity" to the Analects. On the one hand, the book is free of the jargon and freeze-frame philosophy of later Confucian thought. On the other, while respectful towards traditional writings, Confucius has a different agenda, and even language, from the classics. For example, he often spoke of Heaven, the contemporary term for God, but seldom of Shang Di, the term earlier poets and historians used, or "Heaven and Earth," (except in late chapters), a pantheistic term that would be popular later.
In the Zhuang Zi, a couple centuries later, the character called "Confucius" would parrot Taoist ideas: "Just go along with things and let your mind move freely." But in Analects, he speaks in a unique and what we recognize as his true voice, reflecting and interpreting prior beliefs, floating distinct ideas down the current of tradition for later generations to work over.
The eminent British scholar N. T. Wright tests the gospels by the more strenuous tool of 'double dissimilarity:"
"When something can be shown to be credible (though perhaps deeply subversive) within first-century Judaism, and credible as the implied starting point (though not the exact replica) of something in later Christianity, there is a strong possibility of our being in touch with the genuine history of Jesus."
Wright shows that even by this much more rigorous standard, much in the Gospels is affirmed by stringent historical method.
(4) Realistic details. "Zu Gong wanted to dispense with the live sheep presented at the Ducal Temple at the announcement of the new moon. The Master said, 'Zu! You care for the sheep. I care for the ritual.'"
Analects is full of non-dramatic anecdotes of that kind -- daily conversations one can imagine springing up around a person of Confucius' sort. The combination of specific background facts, concrete, believable characters, and sayings that carry the flavor of the teacher's thought, make the text credible.
The same is also true of the Gospels. One gets the feeling of meeting a real person in the Gospels, mediated by place, personalities (of disciples as well as master), disputes, and unique teachings.
(5) Embarrassing! Scholars also evaluate Analects by the "criterion of embarrassment." Confucian educator Chen Jingpan argued we can believe in it in part because the book contains a lot of material
Confucianists would not appreciate:
"Chapter 19 details squabbles between the disciples, and 19:25 tells us that one of them said Confucius was no better than the disciple Zu Gong. In 6:26 it is related that Confucius had an interview with a notorious duchess; this had embarrassed countless prudish Confucians, and was used by their enemies to mock them in Han times. Yet these things were not deleted from the text, which must increase our respect for it." . Notice, Chen argued more than just that certain sayings would not have been invented by skeptics. More, their willingness to report dicey goings on helps establish their credibility. The entire text, or at least the chapters where such sayings are found, deserve our respect.
The Gospels relate far more material that is much more deeply "embarrassing" than these examples. Jesus not only met one sinful woman: he saved one from stoning, chatted another up by a well, and told dinner hosts that another impressed him with her love! Jesus is not only said to be no better than Peter, he is accused of sorcery and betraying sacred traditions. The criterion of embarrassment therefore supports the historicity of the Gospels far more strongly than that of the Analects -- and it supports the latter quite well.
(6) Criticism of subject. Here the picture of Confucius appears to have been slightly airbrushed. A few complaints are reported, in an off-hand way, but nothing serious enough to explain why at least one tried to assassinate him.
The Gospels, by contrast, are full of intense, heated, and realistic criticism of Jesus. Strong verbal attacks on Jesus are reported, sometimes without defense. The four gospels contain nit-picking, suspicion, entrapment, barbed comments, and angry denunciations, directed by respectable citizens at Jesus. He is accused of being a commoner, sinner, "Samaritan and a demon," of breaking Jewish law, the Sabbath in particular, not paying taxes, lack of education, blasphemy, insanity, and black magic.
What disciple would have made all this up? It is hard to think of any parallels -- the wind-bag sage in Apollonius of Tyana is treated with almost universal adulation, as is the "Jesus" of the Gnostic texts. The Gospels, in this regard, seem raw to the touch with uncensored reportage.
(7) Emotions Many ancient writers, both in the Greco-Roman and Chinese worlds, were leary of honestly depicting the emotions of their heroes. (So, of course, are many Hollywood screenwriters -- which is how Arnold Schwarteneggar became an actor!) One way the early records about Confucius persuade us of their honesty, is by recording the raw emotions of the teacher: "If I have in any way done wrong, may Heaven reject me! May Heaven reject me!" "When the Master was in Chi (note: the large state to the north) and heard the Shao music, for three months he was unconscious of the taste of meat. 'I did not imagine,' he said, 'That music had reached such perfection as this!'" "When Yan Yuan died the Master said, 'Alas! Heaven has bereft me!'"
The Gospels confront us even more powerfully with raw human emotion. (By contrast to the Gnostics, where Jesus is a cosmic stick figure.) Jesus shows his feelings naturally, and without apology. Despite the bold authority with which he spoke, his eyes were not focused on himself. He did not project "death-like serenity" or "austere severity" like some gurus. Nor, like others, did he brag.
Jesus was never blase or incurious. He asked, "Who touched me?" He felt pity, became indignant, showed anger, expressed frustration, and displayed delight, joy, and sorrow. . Thomas Cahill complains that Luke "consistently omits" the emotions of Jesus. But in that Gospel, Jesus weeps over Jerusalem. He prays "in agony" in the Garden of Eden, until sweat pours down his back. Passion is often implicit in his words: "Was no one found to return and give thanks to God but this foreigner?" "Blessed are the eyes that see what you see!" "Simon, Simon, Satan has asked permission to sift all of you like wheat, but I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail." Jesus' stories, like the Prodigal Son and the Good Samaritan, are intense in their feelings. . A good modern novelist can make up realistic emotions, of course. But can anyone point to a genuine parallel in the fiction of the ancient world?
(8) Unique quality A wise man does not build his house on sand, nor can a great civilization rest on shaky epigrams. On close consideration, though sometimes his teachings border on platitude, the sayings of Confucius surprise us by their very humility and common sense. Later scholars exagerrated his teachings or ignored the fine balance he found. Confucius' sayings, while not unmatched, and sometimes prosaic, are sensible, and played a mostly positive role in East Asian civilization.
Reading later Confucius literature, such as the Book of Rites, it is hard to imagine any Confucian scholar making up these sayings. They are too personal, too humble, too sensible, and too balanced, for a second-teer scribe to invent.
While some of it is puzzling or off-putting, overall, the quality of teachings given in the Gospels is far more astonishing. "No one ever taught like this man." Even after 2000 years, this anonymous voice in the crowd offers what seems a mild statement of the obvious, as true to the words that prompted it as every other crowd response in the Gospels.
Modern giants of literature and scholarship, surveying a far vaster range of thought, have echoed that ancient comment. The editors of National Review called the words of Jesus "inimitable" -- which, obviously, they are. Dickens described the parable of the Prodigal Son as the best story in literature. Tolstoy spent a lifetime trying to live up to the Sermon on the Mount. . Lin Yutang was one of the great literary figures of 20th Century China. He wrote novels, social criticism, biography, practical philosophy, an anthology of Chinese and Indian literature, and a dictionary. Lin grew up in the Church, left, studied Buddhism, Taoism, Western and Indian thought, and then concluded, "No one has taught as Jesus Christ."
The Gospels are the background Muzak of the Western world, and it may be hard for those who are too familiar with them -- including some biblical scholars -- to see them for what they are. Clearly Jesus' great teachings could only have come from some paramount genius. It is folly to imagine anonymous clerical bookworms making this stuff up. The Gospels preserved the teachings of Jesus, because they recognized from the beginning that he spoke as no one ever else could.
(9) Women. Females figure little in Analects, except for Confucius' nieces, whom he married off to worthy disciples. Another exception was his visit to an upper-class woman of shaky reputation, followed by vehement denial of impropriety. Confucius was, in general, almost as much of a prude as his later followers might wish. . The Jesus of the Gospels, by contrast, consistently treated women with compassion, and without fear, condescension, or male superiority. Walter Wink argued that Jesus' behavior towards women is "astounding:"
"In every single encounter with women in the four Gospels, Jesus violated the mores of his time . . . his behavior towards women . . . was without parallel in 'civilized' societies since the rise of patriarchy roughly three thousand years before his birth."
Skeptics often suggest the Gospels were written to preserve traditional male hierarchy. But how could Jesus have torn down gender conventions every single time he talked to a women in them, if they were written to devalue women? At least one must conclude that the authors were unusually honest patriarchs, to record so much that seemed to undermine their biases. Radical criticism thus shows the humility and honesty of the gospels from yet a new angle.
(10) Caste. Confucius did not pose with famous people all the time, like Apollonius of Tyana. But he was fairly class-conscious. He spen most of his time with disciples or officials, though he would teach a poor student, if need be. His approach is only very mildly revolutionary.
In seeing people, Jesus was blind to the social boundaries of his day. A lot has been written on this topic in recent years, no doubt because we esteem "equality" and "pluralism" highly. These were not the dominant values in the 1st Century, however. In Jewish culture, holiness was defined by placement within a series of concentric circles. The high priest was the most righteous, followed by ordinary priests, Levites, Israelites of pure blood, illicit children of priests, Gentile converts, children born out of wedlock in general, foundlings and eunuchs, those born with deformed sexual organs, then last and least, non-Jews.
By sharp contrast (and Jesus Seminar founder Robert Funk has written well on this), Jesus was willing to fall in with anyone. He "routinely breached the walls and barriers that set sacred space off from profane, and he trampled indifferently on the social dividers that enforced segregation." When Jesus told a story, one was not surprised to find half-breeds, tax collectors, and beggars as heroes. This is the Jesus the Jesus Seminar believes in:
"In contravention of the social order, Jesus was socially promiscuous: he ate and drank publicly with petty tax officials and 'sinners,' yet he did not refuse dinner with the learned and wealthy. He was seen in the company of women in public -- an occasion for scandal in his society. He included children in his social circle -- children were regarded as chattel, especially females, if they were permitted to live at birth -- and advised that God's domain is filled with them."
Like the servant in Isaiah, Jesus displayed a strange, redemptive blindness. In steadfastly failing to notice caste, class, gender, or age, he began to change the world.
How likely is it that such a figure was the invention of pious fiction writers? Read the "Gospel of Judas," even the "Gospel of Thomas," to see what a fictional "Jesus" would look like, praised by so many clever intellectuals, but a proper Gnostic bore. The real Jesus was too original, even while preserving and extending the deep truths of Jewish culture, to be a pious stick figure. These are just ten of the fifty traits that I found describe Jesus in the four canonical Gospels. Each of these, like the winding threads of nucleotides in DNA, suggest that the texts originate from a complex and unique person. It is not easy to invent aphorisms and stories geniuses like Dickens, Tolstoy, and Lin Yutang would stand in awe of: it passes belief that several anonymous early followers of Jesus did so. One cannot believe that Jesus' concern for women was ascribed to him, with deft realism, by several unknown 1st Century proto-feminist propagandists. Jesus' teaching only makes sense as coming from a Jew, and only makes sense as the source of Christian doctrines: yet it makes no sense as merely Jewish, or merely Christian, as N. T. Wright demonstrates.
And on it goes. Each argument, like a strand winding around other strands, makes the whole immeasurably stronger. The evidence for the life, teachings, personality, acts, death and resurrection of Jesus is, as purely historical evidence, thus exponentially greater than for the life and teachings of Confucius. And almost no one doubts, or should doubt, that Confucius lived, and did much of what the early Analects say he did.
But is even such strong historical evidence, strong enough? Is it good enough to persuade us that Jesus walked on water, healed the sick, or raised the dead? Confucius did no miracles. We are not asked, in the Analects, or Quran, or Lao Zi, to move beyond the intellectual familiarity of practical materialism. Someone might well respond, "So maybe the evidence for Jesus is overwhelming. But I can't believe in miracles, anyway. Such things just cannot happen."
The validity of such a response is a question to consider another day. But one has to wonder: If skeptics have for so long overlooked truths that stand out clearly in the Gospels, like an "elephant ten yards away in broad daylight," as C. S. Lewis put it, is it not possible they have overlooked other things, about the world in general, that ought to fit into the background knowledge by which they evaluate the Gospel evidence?