A book is being published by Dr. Bart Ehrman; this is an important event in the Christian scholarly community. The whole idea of the book, the evolution of Christian theology, is very important. No serious scholar today doubts that Jesus existed, but there is a vocal and ignorant minority who keep saying this. Many people have this idea among their jumble of competing ideas about Jesus, and it tends to make us wonder what was so important about Jesus if he was never even born.
Ehrman answers this question in this upcoming book, which is called How Jesus Became God. In an article that he published on the Huffington Post, he provides us with a very concise statement about why we care about the life and death of Jesus even if we are not Christians; I have divided it into more paragraphs than Ehrman originally wrote it for clarity:
"Here is why. If Jesus had never been pronounced a divine being, his followers would have remained a sect within Judaism, a small group of Jews who thought that Jesus had delivered the correct interpretation of the Jewish law. Gentiles would not have converted to follow Jesus any more than they converted to any other form of Judaism.
"If the religion had not become predominantly Gentile it would not have seen such a steady and remarkable growth, almost entirely with Gentile converts, over the next three hundred years, when it came to encompass something like five per cent of the Empire.
"If Christianity were not a large and viable religion by the beginning of the fourth century, the emperor Constantine would almost certainly not have converted to it. If Constantine had not converted, masses of former pagans would not have accepted the faith in his wake. The empire would not have become predominantly Christian.
"The Christian religion would not have been made the official religion of the state. The Christian church would never have become the dominant religious, cultural, social, political, and economic force of the West. We never would have had the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, the Reformation, or Modernity as we know it. And most of us would still be pagans."
This throws an interesting light on this past Sunday's Scripture reading from the Gospel of John. It reached its final form about 100 C. E., although most modern scholars no longer consider that its author was John, the "beloved disciple" and possibly Jesus' cousin. This same John, called the Evangelist, is not considered to be the author of the Book of Revelation either. But a community of early Christians did appear in the First Century that was called Johanine, after the beloved disciple, and this community produced John's gospel, probably out of its traditions and the version of Christianity that they came to teach after coming into contact with Neo-Platonic ideas.
I have to be honest and say that I don't like the Gospel of John, precisely because it evolved into a narrative that is contaminated with Neo-Platonism, using Greek words like "logos," or word, when speaking of Jesus. But you can see the layers of meaning and the depth of thought in this gospel in last Sunday's reading, which deals with Jesus giving sight to a man who was born blind. The selection I quote begins with an argument between the man and the local Pharisees who don't accept his healing (although it would seem obvious that either he could see or he couldn't). It says in part:
"Then they asked him, 'What did he do to you? How did he open your eyes?' He answered, 'I have told you already and you did not listen. Why do you want to hear it again? Do you want to become his disciples too?'”
"Then they hurled insults at him and said, 'You are this fellow’s disciple! We are disciples of Moses! We know that God spoke to Moses, but as for this fellow, we don’t even know where he comes from.'”
"The man answered, 'Now that is remarkable! You don’t know where he comes from, yet he opened my eyes. We know that God does not listen to sinners. He listens to the godly person who does his will. Nobody has ever heard of opening the eyes of a man born blind. If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.'
"To this they replied, 'You were steeped in sin at birth; how dare you lecture us!' And they threw him out.
"Jesus heard that they had thrown him out, and when he found him, he said, 'Do you believe in the Son of Man?' 'Who is he, sir? Tell me so that I may believe in him.' Jesus said, 'You have now seen him; in fact, he is the one speaking with you.' Then the man said, 'Lord, I believe,' and he worshiped him.
"Jesus said, 'For judgment I have come into this world, so that the blind will see and those who see will become blind.' Some Pharisees who were with him heard him say this and asked, 'What? Are we blind too?'
"Jesus said, 'If you were blind, you would not be guilty of sin; but now that you claim you can see, your guilt remains.'" [John 1: 26-41]
What this story shows us is people who know all the rules and regulations. They are presented with a proposition: that this man must be godly or he could not heal. This is something they believed before they were presented with the conundrum that the Rabbi from Nazareth had healed a man. Although they already profess to believe this, they cannot rise above their time-honored point of view, so they reject it. The formerly blind man is telling them a reasoned claim that conforms to their own beliefs, but they reject it because of their inability to believe that anything new could be on the horizon.
This explains Jesus' tightly-compacted statement about the blind seeing while the sighted become blind. Let's unpack it: people with an open mind can consider plain language and come to a decision. Those who demand that everything meet their unexamined standards cannot come to accept that things could happen any other way from how they have "always" happened. Thus Jesus says that your guilt remains when you know enough to consider an alternative truth, but you refuse because this new truth doesn't conform to your expectations.
The idea that the formerly blind man worshiped Jesus rings false to me. It seems that the Gospel of John wants to make it clear that during Jesus' life he was recognized as some kind of godly avatar; this is unnecessary to the credibility of the Gospels; in fact, I think it undermines that credibility. It is certainly uncharacteristic of the behavior of Jews, who worshiped in the Temple.
But other than that, we can see in this reading the layers of meaning that were going back and forth between Jesus, those who came to believe in his vision, and those who could not part ways with the safe parameters of their world view. You take your preconceptions and opinions with you everywhere you go, but if you cannot rise above them when you should, you remain blind. You remain saddled with the behaviors that have caused failure in your life heretofore. It is through being cured of this kind of willful blindness that we make spiritual progress.