Friday, November 14, 2008

Buddhist Origins of Christianity - Jesus of the Gaps

I have recently been reading The Wisdom Jesus by Cynthia Bourgeault. There is much that I like about Bourgeault's attempt to bring out the wisdom aspect of Jesus' teachings and to place it in the context of wisdom teachings from the east and west. For me this is the most meaningful way to understand the message and the life of Jesus.

But I don't think it helps the argument to try and fill in the gaps of our unknowing with speculation that we find attractive. Here is Bourgeault on the significance of Jesus growing up in Galilee:
We tend to think of Jerusalem as the cultural center and that going up to Jerusalem from the Galilean lands was like going from Appalachia to New York City. But in point of fact, it was the other way around. Far from being a cultural backwater, Galilee was actually the more cosmopolitan environment because it lay on the Silk Road, that great viaduct of human commerce which from time immemorial has connected the lands of the Mediterranean with the lands and culture of Central Asia and China. The Silk Road went right through the city of Capernaum, where Jesus did a lot of his learning and his teaching. It was an environment in which he would have been fully exposed to a variety of ideas that could be seen as the New Age of his time. And Jesus evidently soaked up spiritual teaching like a sponge. While he was definitely his own person, he was not operating in a cultural vacuum. hes teachings show clear areas of overlap with the great stream of sophia perennis flowing through other spiritual traditions, particularly Buddhism and Persian light mysticism.
He also likely spoke multiple languages and spent time with the Essenes. The passage above is footnoted with a reference to a friend of Bourgeault's who has not yet published his findings.

Here is Crossan and Reed (Excavating Jesus) on Capernaum:
First-century Capernaum was a modest Jewish village on the periphery of Antipas's territory relying chiefly on agriculture and fishing. An oppressive heat hovers over Capernaum during the long summers, and fields nearby are rocky and difficult to work, and in Jesus's day it was off any major trade route...
There were maybe 1000 residents and there has been no archaeological evidence of pagan artifacts or any evidence of eastern influence dating from the time of Jesus.

Who you gonna believe? This is not to say that Jesus could not have had encounters with ideas outside the world of the Judaism of his day. There were Roman built cities in Galilee where there would have been more cross-cultural exposure possible. But we don't know if Jesus visited Tiberias or Sepphoris; they are not even mentioned in the gospels.

It doesn't do the wisdom Jesus any favors by filling in the gaps of our unknowing with stories about Jesus that fit nicely with our picture of the "dream Jesus." It is enough to allow him to be a brilliant and visionary man fully immersed in his own Jewish culture, which has its own rich wisdom tradition. Future archaeological or textual discoveries may very-well reveal that he spoke five languages fluently, travelled to India on a spiritual pilgrimage and spent time with the Essenes. Until then, it is more than enough to try and plumb the depths of the wisdom of Jesus that we can speak of with some certainty.

Bourgeault's book is actually my second encounter with a Buddhist-inspired Jesus in the last week. Last weekend I attended the Progressive Brethren Summit in Indianapolis (with ProgressiveChurchLady and 200 other progressive Brethren). The keynote speaker was Robert Miller of the Jesus Seminar. He spoke on the parables and the wisdom Jesus and was very good. But I attended a workshop led by a person who used one book as his source (I don't remember the book) to make the case that Jesus was heavily influenced by Buddhist teachings. The workshop leader had the misfortune to have Robert Miller sitting in on for the session. Miller gave a civil but direct point-by-point rebuttal at the end of the workshop, and urged us all to stick to the facts about Jesus as we can discover them, and a method of finding those facts that has intellectual and scholarly integrity.

Words of wisdom.

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