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Books on Christianity

reviewed by T. Nelson


Alternative Christs

Olav Hammer, ed.
Cambridge, 2009/2014, 305 pages
Reviewed by T. Nelson

If you're looking for a great source of facts about Jesus to tell people at your next cocktail party, congratulations—you just found one.

Did you know, for example, that the stable isn't mentioned in the Christian Bible at all. In fact, the image of the stable with oxen and donkey comes from the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew, written around 600. In this version, Jesus is born in a cave and then relocated to a stable.

Other alternative narratives grapple with the philosophical difficulty of having a deity and human being in the same body. Did Christ have to eat, and if so how can we reconcile his divinity with ‘corruption’ of his food by what we now know are intestinal bacteria? What did he actually look like? These were big issues in those days, and a wide variety of early Gnostic and apocryphal texts, all excluded from the canonical text, tried to address them.

Then there's the famous Infancy Gospel of Thomas which describes the childhood Jesus as a supernaturally precocious little brat who cursed the other children, causing them to die, and then brought them back to life. Junior Jesus helps his father by stretching a wooden beam to fit the size needed for a bed.

The doctrine of doceticism held that Christ's human body was an illusion, thus circumventing the problem of how a omnipotent deity could experience suffering at the crucifixion. Another school held that he was born as a human but then adopted by God, possibly at his baptism. The Gospel of Nicodemus, which describes Christ's activities while he was in hell, was enormously popular in the Middle Ages.

Then there's the fascinating story of the alchemists who extended the idea of transubstantiation to include transmutation of lead into gold, sometimes using rather messy and bloody techniques to help it along. Some followed the Christian kabbalah of Johannes Reuchlin, who taught that the fundamental principles of all things were numbers, letters, and sounds, and tried to use them to gain power over nature.

Identification of Christ with the Philosopher's stone was a common motif, especially among the Lutheran Paracelsians, but a dangerous one. Some of these early chemists ended up getting oxidized themselves as the Church's own punishment for heresy. But you could say that the passage in the Bible where Jesus talks about his body and blood changing into bread and wine ultimately led to modern chemistry and the invention of plastics.

Many other heterodox beliefs existed, such as those of the Rosicrucians (who used to advertise in the backs of comic books, and now have their own website), and Guillaume Postel, who believed the spirit of Jesus was in a Venetian woman named Joanna and that he was to become immortal as the second coming of Cain. Other chapters discuss conceptions of Christ in Swedenborgianism, Hinduism, Islam, Mormonism, and the Theosophical tradition.

The Hindus regard Christianity almost as a part of Hinduism. It has long been claimed that Jesus wandered throughout India and possibly Tibet between the ages of 12 and 30 or after his crucifixion, spending the time learning yoga and studying the Vedanta teachings, and eventually dying there. The Hindu concept of Christ's resurrection is, however, quite different from that in Christianity.

The last few chapters go off the deep end, talking about UFO cults and such, in which Christ plays little if any role, suggesting that there are not as many bona fide alternative Christ narratives as the editor originally thought.

The focus is only on what these non-mainstream sects thought about Christ; there's very little on their overall belief systems. Although the chapters are very short, the level of scholarship is impressive. So you don't have to take it on faith that this is an interesting collection of stories about Christ from the Middle Ages to the present.

aug 09, 2015