books book reviews

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. Alchemy originated conceptually from the passage in the Bible where Jesus talks about his body and blood changing into bread and wine. So you might say this Biblical story 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


The Atheist's Bible

by Georges Minois
Chicago, 2012, 249 pages
Reviewed by T. Nelson

Religious people often call atheism a religion. If that's true, why don't they have a Bible? It's not fair! You might say the nonexistence of an atheist's bible is symbolic of atheism itself; but a quick search finds several of them, all pretty much the same. But in the beginning there was one, the authoritative version, you might say, from the non-existing horse's mouth.

According to Georges Minois, it was invented in 1239 when Pope Gregory IX accused Frederick II, the Holy Roman Emperor, of creating a blasphemous abomination: a book that not only disputed Christianity and denied the existence of God, but dared to compare the major figures of three competing religions—Moses, Jesus, and Muhammad—taking no sides and giving no quarter to Christianity or its enemies.

In those days merely being skeptical about some biblical character could get you burned at the stake. Yet dozens of scholars, burning with curiosity, sought out the famous but nonexistent book, as if searching for an atheist Holy Grail, to learn about its ideas. This book is really about their quest: skeptics like Giordano Bruno, intellectually curious people like Queen Christina of Sweden, and great philosophers like Hobbs and Spinoza. It is a history of religious skepticism during the late Middle Ages and the Inquisition.

Inquisitors used the book, The Treatise of the Three Impostors, as ammunition against atheists and skeptics. Yet, Minois says, there is no evidence that it really existed. So, perhaps approprate for an anti-religion, when not one but two versions of it finally showed up 500 years later, it was almost anticlimactic.

Besides criticizing Moses, Jesus, and Muhammad, the infamous 28-page book found contradictions in the Biblical stories and with the concept of God itself:

If God can do anything, and no one can do anything without him, how did it come about that the devil hates him, and takes away his friends? Either he is complicit, or not: if he is complicit, it is certain that the devil, in cursing him, is doing only what he should, since he can only do what God wishes, and in consequence this is not the devil but God himself who curses himself through the mouth of the devil, a thing that to my mind is very absurd. If he is not complicit, it is not true that he is all-powerful . . . .

These arguments are very familiar to us today. Only religious fundamentalists care today, but in those days, when even alluding them could mean death, it must have taken incredible courage. Minois writes with erudition and typical French wit about this little known but fascinating aspect of religious history.

If I were writing an atheist bible, I would add this: perhaps God actually does not want us to believe. If so, then atheism would be the ultimate exercise of religious faith, and no matter what we do we cannot escape God. What more clever way for a Supreme Being to keep his sheep together while giving us the illusion of free will?

It seems that the idea of an atheist bible, like the idea of God itself, was more powerful than the reality.

apr 02, 2017