VARDIS FISHER'S "TESTAMENT OF MAN"
JESUS CAME AGAIN: A PARABLE Alan Swallow, Denver, 1956 (359 pages)
Who was Jesus? What was he? These are questions on which scholars and historians have labored for almost two centuries. They call it "the problem of the historical Jesus." Was Jesus a Jewish teacher whom later hellenized Jews and gentiles molded into a new image for themselves? Was he a political rebel? Did he exist at all, or was he a mythical figure like so many of the savior gods who littered the ancient world, one who underwent a unique transformation into an historical person? These theories and others have been put forward, and each generation of scholars evolves a fresh portrait and analysis of him. What has been universally acknowledged from a critical study of the New Testament is that the picture of Jesus contained in the Gospels is a picture of the faith about Jesus, as held by the Christian community perhaps two or three generations after his alleged life. How much resemblance it bears to an actual person who may have lived and died in Palestine early in the first century CE continues to be the great issue in dispute.
In this novel, Vardis Fisher is not presenting a picture of Jesus which he believes might be historically accurate. Jesus is not to be equated with his Joshua. Rather, the author is telling a story about the sort of man and events whose perceived meaning could have given rise to Christianity. Perhaps such a man did live; perhaps such a story was merely imagined. Imagined by someone or some group, somewhere in the eastern Mediterranean, possibly in Judea, possibly in Alexandria or Antioch, a story giving expression to all the mythical searching strands of the time that were coming together: about a pure suffering one who would be sacrificed to rescue mankind from its fear and hopelessness, one who would release them from the anger of the Father by taking that anger upon himself, one who would offer an example to lead human minds into a new truth, a new attitude about the world and their place within it. He would be an example to show how they could relate to one another on a higher moral level, with love and compassion. The folk-soul (Fisher uses this term in his autobiographical summation to the Testament, Orphans in Gethsemane) has always needed a divine example to show the direction of human behavior, which is why gods have always reflected something in the prevailing human makeup. To change the pattern of human behavior, to bring out other, more desirable, elements to the fore, the folk-soul must embody its sought-for new ideal in myth. This myth may become attached to actual figures and events; or it may simply create such figures and events and give them historical flesh. Whether Joshua/Jesus really lived is beside the point. Either way he has served his purpose. As such, Fisher’s Jesus Came Again (for similar figures have come in the past and will continue to come to serve the folk-soul’s needs) is a symbolic tale: A Parable.
Speculation and expectation about a coming messiah and the cataclysmic change he would bring had been fermenting in Judea for two centuries until it had reached the level of almost national insanity, especially among the common folk. Migrations across the land of vast numbers of people: farmers, city dwellers, rabbles of poor and sick, are recorded during the early decades of the first century, and many a man who sought to lead them, or claimed to be a wonder-worker, teacher, or even the actual messiah, was seized and executed by the Roman authorities as an instigator of public disorder. Such disorder was easily provoked. The average man and woman outside the privileged classes were ground down by a crush of tithes and taxes. Working of the land was crude and injurious. Slavery caused major human misery. Rampant superstition and a belief in a world full of demons who tormented with illness and possession produced nervous disorders and psychotic behavior among many. In an era of primitive medicine, sickness and physical degeneration made millions wretched. Fisher creates a heart-wrenching view of a world full of pain, insanity and injustice.
At one such fevered moment during the reign of Herod Antipas, a young Jew named Joshua joins the throngs of poor and sick who crowd the roads of Judea, making their disorganized way to Jerusalem and other holy places. They are expecting the imminent appearance of the messiah, who will rescue the downtrodden, heal the sick, right all wrongs. Several people attach themselves to Joshua, mostly women: from the simple widow with child, to the educated Greek, to the mystic who has visions of heaven. Some of them begin to believe that Joshua is himself the messiah, though he vigorously denies it. Fisher has shaped his story in the classic "quest" mold: the little travelling band of diverse characters who pass through experiences and trials in their search for something to give them hope and a new life. With childlike faith, they scan earth and sky for the signs heralding the awaited one, they look for him in each notable figure they encounter along the way. They are alternately buoyed by hope and dashed by disappointment.
But the quest is leading Joshua to his own unlooked-for destiny. To the few around him, and then to the world at large, despite the dangers, he begins to express his unorthodox ideas: that the messiah will come not with anger and vengeance to annihilate Israel’s enemies, but with mercy, forgiveness and love, to be a teacher to all people. Bravely he tells a hostile synagogue in Jerusalem: "He will come not to destroy but to heal; not with the pomp and splendor of kings and tyrants, but as the physician among us to bind up wounds, to proclaim peace and justice throughout all the lands of the earth."
When a growing number of those following him imagine that he has healed the sick and even caused a dead man to return to life, Joshua is at last seized and led before Pilate. His humble admission that he believes the messiah will conquer even Rome with love, clashes with the sympathetic Pilate’s need, in a land ever teetering on anarchy, to keep in check all ideas and advocations which encourage a belief that Rome’s authority will be overthrown. For one Jew among many, it means crucifixion as a "rebel." But among Joshua’s followers, a seed of belief has been planted.
Fisher continues to develop important themes that have run through previous novels. Like so many of his predecessors, Joshua is enveloped in an atmosphere of loneliness and isolation. Like the society around him that has rejected the Mother and the female principle, he is deprived of his own mother’s love, for she is a woman who is consumed by the letter of the Law, rather than its spirit, and can give him nothing but rules and admonitions. Joshua himself represents the spirit of the Law, with its depth of intuitive wisdom, embodied in the teachings of Rabbi Hillel whom Joshua often quotes. It is a spirit which Fisher sees as having been submerged beneath the strictures of literal observance (which would also happen in Christianity). As for the Father figure, he lurks only in the background of this novel, but we sense him awaiting the inevitable sacrifice of his pure innocent son. (This, for Fisher, is the mythic significance of Jesus’ outburst on the cross: "My God, why hast thou forsaken me?") Having emotional access to neither father nor mother, Joshua is the symbolic "orphan" which Fisher sees as the prototype of western society.
Joshua’s love goes instead to those around him, and it is especially sensed and returned by the women. The Greek Sirena warns that a loving messiah’s destruction is inevitable, for "People destroy what loves them most; they don’t want love, they want hate, for hate gives them strength, but love makes them weak before their enemies." It is Sirena who delivers a scathing indictment of the prevailing negative view toward women, from Greece to Judea to Buddhist India (all male-dominated religious societies). In line with the development of misogyny which Fisher has been tracing, various men, from prophet to leper, whom the group meets along the way, scorn and avoid the company of women. A common prayer of the day gives thanks to God for not having been "born a woman." Joshua does not share this fear and contempt, and women are attracted to him in consequence. Fisher up to now has envisioned the more positive human attributes (most of them instinctual) to reside in women, and if God is to be equated with the most positive, namely love, he is working his way toward identifying the God concept with the female. The Jesus figure, of course, is male, but Fisher gives Joshua many features he has been associating with his women characters.
Fisher also illuminates the antecedents of beliefs about Jesus. Similar expressions of the needs of the ‘folk-soul’ have developed in Greek and Egyptian society: cults that worshiped savior gods like Osiris, Dionysos, Mithras, most of whom were believed to have died and returned to life (whether physically or spiritually), some of whom were born in caves or stables to virgin mothers, in whose honor sacred meals were eaten. Many of the ethical ideas and sayings attributed to Jesus were already current in Jewish and pagan circles of thought. These antecedents are explored more fully in the next novel, A Goat For Azazel.
There is a magical atmosphere to this profoundly touching book. It sings with a wonderful lightness, glows with naïve innocence. Fisher achieves a felicitous simplicity of expression that surpasses any of the other novels of the Testament. He makes us feel for Joshua’s people, for these poor and diseased and rejected, kept going only by a desperate trust that their lives will be transformed by a miraculous event. We yearn with Joshua when he pleads: "Send us, our heavenly father, one to save us, to deliver the sick from their torments, the famished from their hunger, the slaves from their masters, the weak and helpless from the tyrannies of their rulers, that we may all rejoice and give thanks for deliverance from the evils that possess us." When the idea is planted and grows that Joshua himself is the messiah, the hope catches in the reader’s own throat: if only this could be so! Fisher brings home in a fashion to make the heart weep why the figure of Jesus, be he God, man or myth, has been so powerful and so enduring for two thousand years.
In the Notes and Commentary which he appends to this novel, Fisher discusses the scholarly picture of Jesus at great length, in all its vast variety and contradiction. By the time Fisher was writing, it was acknowledged by critical scholarship that a reliable biography of Jesus the man was hopelessly impossible to construct. On the larger question of his very existence, Fisher lists the many who had argued that "no such person ever lived," but he declares his own opinion to be that "I have none. Either side can make out a plausible case—and I would say almost equally plausible."
That battle for plausibility has been ongoing in the half century since Fisher wrote Jesus Came Again, and both sides have been steadily engaged in demolishing the Christian myth. Even those liberal scholars who retain some figure of Jesus in history, such as John Dominic Crossan and John Shelby Spong, have come to the conclusion that the Gospel account does not represent what actually happened. Crossan admits that everything in the narrative of Jesus’ trial and crucifixion is scripture-derived, "individual units, general sequences, and overall frames," that is, everything from the smallest details to the overall pattern of the story. There is nothing left to constitute "history remembered" [The Birth of Christianity, HarperSanFrancisco, 1998, p.521-22].
Such critical scholars as the Jesus Seminar have fallen back on two documents to try to glean a better picture of the historical Jesus. One is the reconstructed "Q" which has been extracted from common elements in Matthew and Luke. This document, no longer extant, was a collection of sayings and a few anecdotes, reflecting the preaching of the Kingdom of God in Galilee, and it can be seen to have undergone evolution and revision over several decades in the mid to late first century. In Q’s stratification of different types of sayings, all represented as proceeding from a Jesus, only the earliest, they say, is to be attributed to the genuine figure. This ‘authentic’ stratum is said to be corroborated by a similar early stratum within the gnostic Gospel of Thomas, another collection of sayings attributed to Jesus and part of a cache of documents unearthed a half century ago at Nag Hammadi in Egypt.
But neither Q nor Thomas have anything to say about a death and resurrection, or even a redemptive role for their Jesus, and there is little of specifically Jewish concern. Certain signs within the Q document, in fact, would indicate that there was no Jesus figure at all in its earlier strata. Moreover, the bedrock layer of sayings bears a strong resemblance to the teachings and lifestyle of a Greek counter-culture movement of the period, spread by wandering preachers: the Cynics. Thus, for some modern scholars, the ‘genuine’ Jesus has become a Cynic-style sage.
Whether this figure should also be seen as having given rise to the other dimension of Christianity, the movement of which Paul was a part, preaching the death and resurrection of a heavenly Christ and Son of God, has become the great conundrum. The two sides of the Christian coin seem to have little or nothing in common, for the New Testament epistles, reflecting the Pauline type of early faith, do not equate their divine Christ with the Jesus of Nazareth of the Gospels, or place him in their narrative setting. The dying and rising Christ Jesus of the epistles does not move in either Jerusalem or Galilean circles. When and where he may have lived is never stated. The teaching, miracle-working and apocalyptic prophecy of the Galilean Jesus of Q are nowhere in sight, and Paul’s Jesus inhabits a world of pre-existence, creation, and rule of the heavens, in contact with angels and demons, but never with Pilate, Judas or the women at the tomb. Paul’s Savior is spoken of as an entity long-hidden, now revealed by God to inspired apostles through scripture and the Holy Spirit.
Q and Paul were worlds apart, with virtually no points of contact, until they were brought together, sometime in the late first century, under one symbolic figure in the Gospel of Mark. That story is a composite creation, a representation of the Kingdom preaching centered in Galilee joined to an allegory of death and rising of the savior god Christ Jesus placed in an earthly setting. Mark, in combining his two antecedents, brought the imagined founder of the Kingdom movement to Jerusalem, and there had him tried and crucified by Pilate, to rise from his tomb on Easter morning and bestow salvation on the world.
When Fisher cast his novel of Jesus as "A Parable," he could not have known that the next half century would reveal him as prescient. If a parable is basically a device which conveys some insight or comment on a larger perceived truth or contemporary situation by means of a symbolic anecdote or allegorical piece of fiction, recent scholarly research has shown that this is essentially what the Gospels consist of, almost in their entirety. That grand Gospel parable was a tapestry whose threads have now been unraveled and exposed.
First, Jesus as sacrificial redeemer conformed to the class of ancient world salvation deities who were worshiped in a range of pagan mystery cults. The deaths and resurrections imputed to most of these deities go back to prehistoric mythologies rooted in the annual cycle of dying and rising plant life, and in the movements of the sun and other astronomical bodies. They, like the Pauline Christ, guaranteed personal salvation for the devotee. They, too, were united with the believer, through rituals of baptism and sacred meals like the Christian Eucharist. Their sacramentalism was cut from the same cloth. The new Christian savior god possessed some uniquely Jewish features, having originated in Jewish circles or among gentiles who had assimilated Jewish beliefs, but he belonged essentially to the world of the Greco-Roman mysteries flourishing across the empire.
This dimension of Mark’s Gospel served as the myth of the savior god Christ Jesus, and it borrowed elements from the composite myth of the pagan cults. In addition to the features noted above, these secondary gods were (variously) born of the high God and a mortal virgin, usually at the winter Solstice, attended by shepherds or magi. They performed miracles, healed, cast out demons, raised the dead. They established communal meals with sacramental significance, rose from or overcame death (or in the case of Mithras slew a bull), and would come to earth as judge at the end of time. All were pathways to salvation and rescue from inimical forces. In the time of Christianity’s inception, such myths, under the influence of Platonic philosophy, were placed in the higher supernatural world, and indications within the New Testament epistles and other early documents locate the Christ myth and his sacrificial death in the same spiritual setting. The Gospel expansion on that myth, eventually regarded as history, brought this new savior god to earth and placed him in recent historical time.
The second dimension of Mark’s composite Gospel, Jesus’ ministry in Galilee, served to symbolize the Q type of Kingdom movement and its view of itself as a new Israel in a new covenant with God, preaching repentance and a counter-culture ethic, working miracles and predicting the impending arrival of the Kingdom. The details of that ministry, together with those of the passion story in Jerusalem, are almost entirely the product of midrash, a Jewish practice of commentary and enlargement on scripture. Mark constructed his account, supplemented by Matthew and Luke, out of stories and themes from the Old Testament. Rather than these being regarded as prophecies of a contemporary Jesus, the scriptural elements generated the story and its symbolic events.
Jesus’ actions were patterned after those of Moses in Exodus, from his forty days in the wilderness mimicking Moses’ forty years in the desert, to the Transfiguration scene mirroring Moses on Mt. Sinai, to the Last Supper’s institution of the new covenant being a reworking of Moses’ ritual words at the establishment of the old one, and so on. Jesus’ miracles were a direct reworking of the miracles of Old Testament figures like Elijah and Elisha, such as the feeding of the 4000 and 5000 which copied Elisha’s feeding miracle in 2 Kings 4, down to small details. Many miracles put flesh on the predictions of prophets like Isaiah, about the healing wonders that would take place with the arrival of the Kingdom.
Virtually the entire sequence of the passion story is constructed out of verses from the Psalms and prophets. Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem on an ass’s colt is derived from Zechariah. The cleansing of the Temple is a construction based on Malachi 3:1, "The Lord whom you seek will come to his Temple," and Hosea 9:15, "Because of their evil deeds I will drive them from my house." The figure of Judas was prompted by passages of betrayal in the Psalms, the Gethsemane scene by passages of anguish and doubt. The involvement of the Sanhedrin, the false accusers at the trial, Jesus’ silence before Pilate, the scourging, the crown of thorns, all have their sources in the scriptures. The very concept of the crucifixion itself would have been inspired by Psalm passages about piercing and nailing that were considered messianic. The actions of the soldiers, the taunting of the crowds, the presence of the two thieves, the darkness at noon, such things were a product of the sacred texts. The overall story retold the tale of the Suffering Righteous One, found throughout centuries of Jewish writing. Thus was the great parable of a human Jesus put together by the evangelists.
Features of popular hellenistic romances of the time are now recognized to parallel details of the empty tomb and post-resurrection appearances, as well as the sea voyage of Paul to Rome in Acts. But yet another pagan dimension seems to have contributed to Mark’s inspiration. All knew the great epics of Homer; they served as models in rhetoric, poetry and prose. A recent scholar has shown that a multitude of details in Mark, from the character of the apostles, to the incident of the Gerasene swine, to the burial after the crucifixion, can be seen as patterned on elements of the Iliad and Odyssey, in a kind of ‘inverse’ imitation [Dennis MacDonald, The Homeric Epics and the Gospel of Mark, Yale University Press, 2000]. Just as Jesus imitates but surpasses Moses, so does he outdo the great Greek heroes like Achilles and Odysseus. This type of symbolism in the Gospels, culling from a rich contemporary culture, linked these fledgling sects to heritages that were ancient and hallowed, bestowing on them a stature and sanctity rooted in the past. It supported their convictions of a present, and their own central role within it, that was about to give way to a glorious future.
Such a multi-source picture has made it impossible to arrive at a likely or even feasible historical man lying in the background to any of it. Even were there some individual who supplied a seed to one of the stems which evolved into the profuse growth of Christianity, that historical man would be little more than incidental, a role that could have been filled by many. Vardis Fisher may have perceived this, and offered a Jesus who was only a parable, a symbol of the ideas of a time of innovation and turmoil, when people were ready to generate a new synthesis that would erupt into an energetic faith destined to conquer half the world.
That energy is now winding down, losing its momentum. While faith in the ancient world’s triumphant savior god enjoys a twilight flare in our present-day society, reason and research are overtaking the Christian myth and will eventually dissolve it. Fisher stood near the onset of that disintegration. His Jesus Came Again: A Parable was the first significant piece of popular fiction to embody those new insights of scholarship and rationality.
Part Five will review the following novel of the TESTAMENT, A Goat For Azazel, tracing the process by which the Jesus figure generated the movement that became Christianity.
PART FIVE: A Goat for Azazel