Shadows, Souls and Where They Go

I saw the new Charlie and the Chocolate Factory over the weekend and really loved it. If I was 11, that would certainly be my favourite film. Well, it and A Series of Unfortunate Events of course. I was freaked out by the Michael Jackson-ness of Willy Wonka. It was a stroke of genius. The only problem was with the stupid, trendy pop-psychological, wrap-it-all-up and explain his weirdness in terms of someone else’s actions tacked-on ending.

But I got to thinking about Jacko and his strange, tragic ways. We were talking about how he has named his sons Prince Michael II and Prince Michael III. I don’t know whether that is true or not or whether Prince Michael I is suffering from occultation like the last true Imam of the Shias or whether Michael in an act of gracious humility regards himself as only a Prince instead of the logical King of Neverland but it is kind of terrifying. (Actually, I think his first son is hidden in the folds behind reality because a prince can only be a Prince if he is the son of a King or Queen. If Jacko and all his sons are Princes, that must mean that the constitutional arrangement of Neverland recognises them all as brothers. That would be a plainly ridiculous claim. No way to establish a monarchy anyway.)

Anyway, this attempt by a plainly unmonarchial man to make himself King was mirrored by my reading of NT Wright’s The Resurrection of the Son of God over the weekend, where he discusses the ancient practice of plainly undivine Kings making themselves gods. This process is called apotheosis and it puts the pomposity or arrogance of modern leaders like Putin and Bush into their place.

The book is an outstanding masterpiece. It is the third and most recent volume of a 6 or 7 set work that aims to systematically assess the historical roots of Christianity. Its conclusions are devastating to commonly assumed Jesusian foundations. But it begins by looking at the world and the influences that Christianity was born into. Seeing as this volume deals with Easter, he spend the first 100 pages looking at life-after death ideas in the Jewish and Graeco Roman world. His goal is to comprehensively prove that the idea of resurrection was completely new and not at all natural into the intellectual world of about 30AD.

See, back in the day there was a very influential book published called The Golden Bough. WB Yeats and CS Lewis (during his atheist days) and other very clever poets with 2 initials before their surnames absorbed this work the way I am devouring NT Wright. It postulated that Christianity was just like a crapload of other cults and religions that stretched around the Mediterranean from Egypt to Israel to Rome and that the idea of a god dying and rising again was as common then as the idea that little statues of buddha on your mantlepiece make your living room look classy today.

Wright blows this out of the water. A major argument against Chrisitanity has been that Jesus was a mortal man and that his followers were revisionist historians who perpetuated the myth of divinity for their own benefit. But the record of classical apotheosis challenges this. By the time Jesus started his ministry, Roman emperors were typically attributed divine status in the Eastern regions. In 14AD, Tiberius was made ruler of the Empire but he quickly had his old man Augustus declared divine in a stroke of powerful historical revisionism. This made sense since 44 years previously, at the beginning of his reign, while he was still involved in a power struggle with Antony, Augustus (or as Octavian as he was called back then) had himself depicted as the god Neptune on coins which bore the title “Son of Caesar”.

But this process of deification was not comparable to the worship of Jesus by early adherents to Christianity who firmly believed that their leader had actually physically died and physically risen in the same body with the same identity again. See, by 54AD, the great poet Seneca lampooned the apotheosic transformation of the dead emperor Claudius. The king-turned-god was never properly understood to have actually become or been a God. Romans did not place Claudius in the same category Christians placed Jesus. It is not the same thing. In the course of ordinary day to day life, average Roman citizens did not perceive Claudius or Augustus as actual creator gods. It was rather a nationalistic device that encouraged stability in an Empire that had stretched to bulging proportions.

While a Roman emperor would certainly command more respect than Wacko Jackson as they tried to elevate themselves beyond their stature, the idea that they were worshipped like Jesus was, that the view their followers had of them was the same kind of view Jesus’ followers had of him is as preposterous as claiming that King Jackson is viewed in the same way and treated the same as Queen Elizabeth II simply because he declares himself regal.

The earliest known Christian sentence is not a saying of Jesus but an archaic affirmation quoted by Paul in the oldest text of the New Testament: ‘God raised him from the dead‘. Christianity literally hangs on that cross. If Jesus did not physically die and physically rise, if death was not reversed, if Easter was not born, if Christ be not resurrected then the greatest fools in history are his followers. Unlike all other belief systems, Christianity is uniquely rooted to a historical event. Wright’s work attempts to bring us back to that foundation and it makes for thrilling reading.

Your Correspondent, Liking The Way You Work It

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