An odd little myth

The “historical Jesus” post is still collecting comments, so I suppose there might still be enough interest to justify bringing up the topic again. I’m still not convinced that Jesus never existed, and I’ve thought of an example which seems to suggest to me that some preacher by that name probably did exist. It’s found in Matthew 22:23-33. The most interesting bits are these:

That same day the Sadducees, who say there is no resurrection, came to him with a question…

Jesus replied, “…But about the resurrection of the dead—have you not read what God said to you, ‘I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? He is not the God of the dead but of the living.”

When the crowds heard this, they were astonished at his teaching.

I’d heard this story for years before I realized what an odd little story it really is. Here is Jesus, trying to find some Mosaic reference to resurrection, and the best he can come up with is an argument that God stops being your God when you die? That’s a bizarre thing for a Christian to teach, let alone ascribing such an idea to Jesus himself. As a myth invented decades or centuries later, in an attempt to promote a mythical Messiah in a growing Christian culture, it seems pretty unlikely to me. There’s an alternative, though, that makes a lot more sense.

Disclaimer: I’m not a historian, and this suggestion is somewhat speculative on my part, so feel free to point out whatever evidence you might have that would refute it. Hypothetically, though, I’m going to suggest that the above story would make sense in the following context. Suppose the Sadducees are henotheistic—believing in many gods but serving only one, as Moses allegedly commanded. Suppose that one of these gods is Mot, the Canaanite god of the dead (cf. here, search for “god of the dead”), and that belief in Mot and other deities has been present in Israel since pre-Exilic times, much to the chagrin of the staunchly monotheistic Pharisees.

In this context, it would be possible for a Pharisaic preacher to astound the crowds by pointing out a contradiction in Sadducean theology. At the time of Moses, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob were dead, and thus Mot, the god of the dead, ought to be their God. Jehovah is only the god of living Jews. Thus, though there’s no direct mention of Pharisaic-style resurrection in Moses, this offhand reference might be interpreted as “I am still the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob,” and might score big points with people in the debate over what happens to you after you die.

Granted, this scenario has some conflicts with Sadducean teaching as it is understood today by many people. On the other hand, our only record of Sadducean teaching comes from Pharisaic attempts to refute and discredit it. What the Pharisees say about Sadducean beliefs might have no more to do with their real beliefs than what Fox News says about liberal beliefs, so I don’t see that as an insurmountable obstacle.

What this would mean is that this story would have to originate in a time and place where the original and undistorted Sadducean teachings were available and interesting to the general population, and that the emotional significance of the story (“they were amazed!”) survived the gradual loss of its original context, leaving us with an apparently confused and decidedly counter-productive argument for a resurrection. (After all, if Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are still living, then they cannot be raised from the dead.)

This is going to limit the possible source of the original story to a fairly narrow locale and period, which seem about right for a preacher (possibly named Jesus) in early first century Palestine. Granted, this does not eliminate the possibility that “Jesus Christ” is an amalgam of stories borrowed from a variety of preachers and their most memorable zingers, with a healthy helping of myth on top. But I think it does suggest that certain elements of the Jesus myth probably did have origins in the actual words and teachings of actual, living preachers.

The alternative would be for some Christian believer to make up a wholly fictional myth that makes no sense and does nothing to promote the Christian faith, especially in the absence of a surviving enemy (the Sadducees) whose beliefs would need to be refuted. Despite its more speculative nature, it seems to me that my scenario provides a more reasonable and plausible explanation for the origin of this rather peculiar story.

You are of course welcome to disagree, and in fact I wouldn’t mind seeing evidence that would prove me wrong. Worst that can happen is that I’ll learn something, and that’s all good.