The Atlantic Monthly, April 2009


Robert Wright’s “One World, Under God” begins with the assertion that most New Testament scholars now regard the Gospel of Mark as significantly older than the other gosples, perhaps not much newer than the oldest writings in the New Testament, Paul’s letters.  Mark stands out from the other gospels in that the sayings of Jesus recorded there are all quite harsh:

The Jesus in Mark, far from calmly forgiving his killers, seems surprised by the Crucifixion and hardly sanguine about it (“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”). In Mark, there is no Sermon on the Mount, and so no Beatitudes, and there is no good Samaritan; Jesus’ most salient comment on ethnic relations is to compare a woman to a dog because she isn’t from Israel.

The gentle Jesus meek and mild whom liberal Christians preach and the “great moral teacher” whom moderate secularists and ecumenical-minded non-Christians praise appears in the gospels of Luke and Matthew.  If these accounts took shape as long after Mark’s as Wright says they may have done, then it is possible that they were influenced by Paul:

Of course, since Paul was writing after the time of Jesus, it’s been natural to assume he got these ideas from the teachings of Jesus. But when you realize that Jesus utters the word love only twice in the Gospel of Mark—compared with Paul’s using it more than 10 times in a single letter to the Romans—the reverse scenario suggests itself: maybe the Gospel of Mark, which was written not long after the end of Paul’s ministry, largely escaped Pauline influence, and thus left more of the real Jesus intact than Gospels written later, after Paul’s legacy had spread.

This hypothesis cuts against the grain of New Testament criticism, which at least since the Enlightenment has tended to cast Paul as the main figure in an effort to make Jesus seem less like a sweetheart and more like an apocalyptic crank than he really was.  Perhaps the opposite was the case, and it was Paul who invented the idea of Christianity as a religion of boundless good will. 

Wright spends most of the article using business language (for example, subject headings like “Paul as CEO,” “Barriers to Entry,” “Getting to Non-Zero”) to lay out his idea that the reason Paul might have wanted to invent such an idea was that he was responding to the same kinds of pressures that businesspeople respond to these days, and that by expanding the appeal of the Christian “brand” to non-Jews he was acting to increase its long-term viability.  He compares this strategy- “Paul’s business plan”- to efforts other religious movements have made to reach out beyond the communities they inherited, and suggests that tolerance-themed religions may have a market advantage in times of globalization.  This part strikes me as absolute bushwa, but the opening sections about the relationship of the Gospel of Mark to other documents in the New Testament is very clear and handy.

Elsewhere in the issue, a note describes the work of Eric Seed, who founded a company that brings alcoholic beverages once thought extinct back to the American market.  Some of these, like an Austrian walnut liqueur that I’ve been wondering about ever since I read the piece, Seed imports from out of the way places; others, such as Crème de Violette, he commissions chemists to make from old recipes.

Christopher Hitchens (I know, I know, I don’t like him either) writes a piece about Karl Marx’ strengths as an economist, conceding along the way that Marx’ theoretical framework does not include an explanation for the phenomenon of price.  That would seem to represent rather a serious drawback.  Hitchens might have mentioned that Marx died in 1883, and that Alfred Marshall published the first really coherent account of the law of supply and demand only in 1881, so that it is somewhat unfair to tax Marx overmuch with his failure to include a pricing mechanism in his theory.  One point for which I am indebted to this piece is the citation of Rudolf Bahro’s The Alternative in Eastern EuropeHitchens writes:

In my opinion, therefore, the most powerful Marxist book of the past four decades was Rudolf Bahro’s The Alternative, which showed how and why the East German state and economy were certain to implode. Communism, said Bahro—one of its former functionaries—was compelled to educate and train people up to a certain level. But beyond that level, it forbade them to think, or to inquire, or to use their initiative. Thus, while it created a vast amount of “surplus consciousness,” it could find no way of employing this energy except by squandering and dissipating and ultimately repressing it. The conflict between the forces and relations of production in the eastern part of the homeland of Karl Marx thus became a locus classicus of the sort of contradiction he had originally identified. (Incidentally, and as Václav Havel, following Heidegger, once pointed out in an address to a joint session of Congress, this makes a strong case for “consciousness” having a say in the determination of “social being.”) 

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  1. cymast

     /  March 24, 2009

    I find the most confusing curiosity of Christianity (aside from the Jesus fixation) is the dichotomy of Christians who believe in a loving god who did NOT create a place of eternal torture and suffering, and Christians who believe in a loving god who DID create a place of eternal torture and suffering. Those sound like 2 completely DIFFERENT religions to me, Jesus similarities incidental.

  2. acilius

     /  March 24, 2009

    I agree that the dichotomy between those who believe in the existence of Hell and those who do not is an important one.

    Another dichotomy might be the relative importance of Hell in the minds of those who believe in it. Some Christians apparently devote a lot of energy to imagining Hell in great detail and living in fear of it, others don’t seem to be focused on it at all. For example, Quakers traditionally have not thought it worthwhile to pay attention to questions about what exactly happens to the souls of the dead.

    So about a year ago the Quaker meeting Mrs Acilius and I attend hosted a guest speaker who said he didn’t think there was a Hell. Over the next few weeks, there was a rather low-key discussion in which it became clear that about half the members of the meeting 1. thought that Hell existed, and 2. hadn’t spent five minutes worrying about it, while most of the rest 1. thought that Hell did not exist, and 2. hadn’t spent five minutes worrying about it. A sizeable minority 1. didn’t know whether Hell existed, and 2. seemed to think they’d find out soon enough. A few people 1. didn’t believe at all in life after death, and 2. seemed embarrassed to be around people who had opinions about what sort of life there might be after death.

    Among those who thought it was worthwhile to have an opinion about whether Hell existed, few seemed committed one way or the other on the question of what sort of place Hell might be. In something like Dante’s Inferno, we see it depicted as an elaborately constructed place of sadistic torments; a few scraps of the Bible might be taken to support this view. In something like Dostoyevsky’s remark in The Brothers Karamazov that the most frightening remark he ever heard in a description of damned souls was “These God forgets,” we see it depicted as simple nonexistence; other passages of the Bible support this view, as does most Jewish thought and as do the works of such leading Christian thinkers as Augustine of Hippo. No one in our meeting was much interested in defending the Dantean view, and only a few were willing to make cursory remarks in support of the Augustinian one.

    Anyway, everyone seemed to regard the whole topic of Hell as an academic question and indeed rather a silly one. It clearly didn’t occur to anyone that the differences among us meant that we ought to split into separate meetings, much less into separate religions. They were all in agreement that the important thing is what use you make of this life, not what you imagine the next life to be like. So, feed the hungry, water the thirsty, clothe the naked, tend the sick, visit the prisoner, and you’ll be all right, whatever the invisible parts of the universe might be like. Refuse to do these things, or stir up war and hate, and Quakers think you’ll be missing out on something good, even if they can’t say just what that good thing is or what you’ll get instead.

    I suspect that in their blithe disregard for this question, Quakers have gone to an unsupportable extreme. I don’t know if I’d go quite so far as to say that those who believe in Hell necessarily subscribe to a completely different religion than do those who do not believe in it, but I do suspect that the Quakers have benefited from operating in societies where most people have definite ideas about the afterlife. So if they avoid controversies about it, it’s because their members plug the consensus views in to fill the gaps left by their lack of theology. If that’s so, then the dwindling of Quakerdom (there are fewer than 300,000 Quakers in the world today) may show what happens to a religious movement that doesn’t have much theology of its own when it is thrust into a world where there is no consensus view to take for granted.

  3. cymast

     /  March 24, 2009

    “So about a year ago the Quaker meeting . . embarrassed to be around people who had opinions about what sort of life there might be after death.”

    Quakers are, indeed, a diverse group! I assume Quakers are called “Christians” because they are disciples of Jesus.

  4. acilius

     /  March 25, 2009

    They are a diverse group!

    Quakers say their movement started one day in 1647, when a young Englishman named George Fox was off by himself on Pendle Hill in Lancashire. Fox had been mulling over the big questions of life for some time, and was quite troubled. Meditating on top of Pendle Hill, Fox had some sort of vision, in which he felt a voice say “There is one, even Christ Jesus, who can speak to your condition.”

    So Quakerism started as a very Christ-y Christian movement. Many of today’s Friends are still very Christ-y. Some aren’t; there’s a big rural/urban split among Quakers, and there are quite a few meetings in urban areas where you are as unlikely to hear exhortations to follow Jesus as you are in any Unitarian Universalist gathering. Our meeting is about half urban and half rural, with a lot of people from the university and a lot of people from farms, so we run the gamut.

  5. cymast

     /  March 25, 2009

    ” . . off by himself on Pendle Hill in Lancashire. Fox had been mulling over the big questions of life for some time, and was quite troubled. Meditating on top of Pendle Hill, Fox had some sort of vision . . ”

    Wow I thought you were gonna say he found some golden plates next . .

  6. acilius

     /  March 25, 2009

    Fox was full of surprises. Most founders of religious movements either claim to have some unique knowledge of the supernatural world, or produce documents like the Quran or the Book of Mormon that are supposed to contain truths direct from God. Fox didn’t. He denied that he had any special relationship with God, and insisted that anyone who engaged in silent meditation was capable of equaling or excelling his mystical experiences. Moreover, Fox tended to respond to disagreement by listening respectfully. He never threw anyone out of his movement, indeed he never even established an organization out of which anyone could be thrown. The first Quaker denomination, the Religious Society of Friends, wasn’t founded until 1798, over a hundred years after Fox’s death.

  7. cymast

     /  March 25, 2009

    “There is one, even Christ Jesus, who can speak to your condition.”

    Am I the only one who finds that a bit cryptic? Maybe it was the language of the time?

  8. acilius

     /  March 25, 2009

    I think it was the language of the time. “Is there any who can speak to my condition?” = “Does anyone understand what I’m going through?”

  9. cymast

     /  March 25, 2009

    Yeah, I got that part. The word “even” threw me.

  10. acilius

     /  March 25, 2009

    The intensifier “even” used to be less specific than it is now. In those days just about any statement that was surprising could be marked with “even.” In German, the gesture word “eben” still works that way.

  11. cymast

     /  March 25, 2009

    So . . “There is one- surprisingly- Christ Jesus, who can speak to your condition.” ?

    Or . . “There is one- Christ Jesus, surprisingly- who can speak to your condition.” ?

  12. acilius

     /  March 25, 2009

    I think it’s the second one. Fox was deeply dissatisfied with every variety of Christianity he had encountered, and Pendle Hill had a reputation for occult goings-on. The fact that he made his pilgrimage there would strongly suggest that he had despaired of Christianity and was hoping to find a source of supernatural insight that would not be dependent on it.

  13. cymast

     /  March 25, 2009

    His failure is your gain.

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