Orthodox Christians take part in the ‘holy fire’ Easter ceremony at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem’s Old City
Orthodox Christians take part in the ‘holy fire’ Easter ceremony at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem’s Old City

The Easter vigils — in both the Orthodox east and the Catholic west — begin in complete darkness, usually outside a church building. A fire is lit. From this blaze the priest ignites a taper and intones: “The Light of Christ!” With this taper is lit a neighbour’s candle. That neighbour passes it on to another. Little by little, a darkened church is irradiated by little patches of light, which eventually fill the whole building. Later in these ceremonies, all the lights go up, and the resurrection is proclaimed. The Lord is risen! He is risen indeed!

The symbolism rings true. For while Christianity is sometimes spoken of as one of the “religions of the book” — the other two being Judaism and Islam — it would be more accurate to call the Christian Bible the “book of the people”. Christianity, although it treasures the scriptures of the Bible, has always been an organic faith, growing from innumerable personal experiences of Christ, and passed from individual to individual.

The light of Christ is handed from neighbour to neighbour not only in the Easter ceremony but down the ages. The huge majority of Christians have derived their faith not from reading books but from contact with other people. One of the things that liturgy, or public prayer, does is link you and me now with all the many who have gone before us; not as a club, or a party or a political movement is linked — collectively — but as a series of flickering candle-flames, each distinct, each ablaze with a different light, though touched by the common source, which is Christ. Those of us who count ourselves (even if, as in my case, wishy-washily) among the Christian number do so because we have been shown the light by other Christian lives — by friends or family, or by lights in history. In my lifetime, three of the most impressive world events have been the collapse of the Soviet Union, the miraculously peaceful ending of apartheid in South Africa, and the US civil rights movement.

The profoundly Christian witness of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, who was led from arid atheism to belief by watching Baptists in the gulag reading the gospels on tiny bits of paper, was a major part of the dissolution of the Marxist materialist tyranny in Russia. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa was overtly Christian, and the part played by Desmond Tutu makes him, for me, one of the great men of our times. The biography of Martin Luther King, and the fact that his (totally non-fundamentalist) prophetic reading of the Bible inspired his leadership of the civil rights movement, remains, to me, a very bright candle, passed on, when the idiocies or nastiness of contemporary Christians make me feel greater kinship with the agnostic majority.

If you follow this chain of lights back through Christian history, you will find that the flame has been handed on, in many cases, by men and women whose mindset is so different from your own that you might seriously wonder whether it is still possible to subscribe to the Christian religion. Consider the spectrum of Christian views on such questions as homosexual love. Think how a benign institution such as the Mothers’ Union could have excluded divorced women, even if they were the “innocent” party in a marriage breakdown. Even if you imagine that your candle of faith has been passed down the generations exclusively by those you admire — from Dante to Chaucer, or from Dr Johnson to Christina Rossetti — you might still find among these luminaries opinions and superstitions that could never be yours. Step outside western Europe, and back into eastern Europe, north Africa and the Middle East — to the eras and places where Christianity actually was forged — and your sense of alienation will surely be even more marked.

And when you return to the Bible itself, to documents supposed to authenticate the Christian faith, you will find a surprise, especially if you are expecting anything we could call evidence.

Most of us would assume, for example, that if you go back through the ages, you will eventually come to data, in the Bible, that will enable you to decide whether or not you think the story of the death and resurrection of Christ — and Christianity itself — is “true”. You might assume that this data can be found in the books that we call the four gospels (according to Matthew, Mark, Luke and John and found in the New Testament). But this is not the case.

In fact, the earliest Christian documents are the writings of Paul, dating from around AD50-60. Possibly about the same date, or a little later, we find the extraordinary Letter to the Hebrews, with its exhortation to rise above persecution. In AD70, shortly after this was written, Jerusalem was sacked by the Romans, the Jews were dispersed, their temple was destroyed — and many of the ideas contained in Hebrews seem to have been fulfilled.

The author of Hebrews, perhaps addressed to Christians in Alexandria, thought that the ancient ceremonies of the Jerusalem temple — for example, the Day of Atonement when the High Priest entered the Holy of Holies, or the offering of animal sacrifices — were but foreshadows of what was to come, namely the death of Jesus on a public gallows.

This, they believed, was the true offering of atonement. Jesus, who had risen from the dead, was our great shepherd, whose blood was shed through the everlasting covenant. It is an extraordinary claim to have made about a man who died as a common criminal in the most humiliating form of torture — crucifixion.

After the temple was destroyed, a visionary who seems to have had some kind of connection with the priesthood, and who had gone into exile on the Greek island of Patmos, had a notion about a new Jerusalem, in which Jesus was the Passover lamb, now eternally adored in Heaven by the martyrs — the Jews and Christians who had been massacred by the Romans. This vision foretold the imminent destruction of Rome and the reign of the saints.

Centuries later, Victorian rationalists liked to suppose that these visionary or weird bits of the New Testament were added on to the simple gospel narratives (see below). Paul, long held to be the author of Hebrews, was blamed for inventing lots of “doctrines”, such as the atonement, when all the gospels contained was the simple messages of peace and love of a Galilean prophet. However, the earliest documents we possess do not describe the early Christian movement as a fan club for a pacifist Galilean. The record is, instead, of very disparate people proclaiming the resurrection.

The gospels all contain allusions to the destruction of Jerusalem, which indicates they must have been written after AD70. They do, of course, also depict a prophet who told parables about sheep and fig trees and sowing seeds on the ground. But they are not history in the sense in which we use the word.

Take the central act of Christian worship: the Eucharist, or Holy Communion. The first three gospels — Matthew, Mark and Luke — say that Jesus instituted the Eucharist on the eve of his death, during the Jewish festival known as Pesach or Passover. There are many problems about believing that the Last Supper was a Passover meal. In order to believe it, you have to suppose that the high priests and the Jerusalem hierarchy were prepared to suspend the Pesach, to interrupt all the ceremonies in the temple in order to hold a trial supervised by Pontius Pilate, the Roman procurator. Why would they do that, rather than waiting until after the feast and keeping the malefactors in prison? The fourth gospel makes no reference to the institution of the Eucharist and, instead, has him dying on the cross at the moment when the Passover lambs are being killed in the temple. How did both these gospel narratives — the Last Supper as Passover meal or, alternatively, Jesus as Passover lamb — come to be written, when neither could possibly have been historically accurate?

The answer, surely, is that Paul had the idea of Christ’s death as a Passover sacrifice. In his first epistle to the people of Corinth, he told them that Jesus had instituted the meal on the eve of his death. The next generation, the one that wrote down the gospels, conflated these two ideas. We don’t know for certain where the gospels were eventually written down but most scholars would say at least three of our canonical four were written far from Palestinian Judaism, and it did not occur to the authors that their Passover narrative was improbable.

What they wanted to convey was the theological idea that Jesus was the Passover lamb, who was known to us from the story of his breaking of the bread in the First Letter to the Corinthians. So we have the beautiful story, in the Gospel of St Luke, of two men walking to the village of Emmaus, and meeting a stranger they do not recognise until he breaks bread with them — and they know him as the risen Christ.

When you examine the texture of the gospel narratives you discover that they all contain stories with meanings. Their narratives are formed by putting together passages of what Christians call the Old Testament. For example, the gospels tell of Jesus being regarded as the son of David, so that — at key moments in the text — he behaves as David did, going up the Mount of Olives and weeping over the city. Or he acts like the new Moses, going in Matthew’s account of the Sermon on the Mount up the mountain to deliver a new law.

None of this means that the gospels are not true. It simply means that — given the ways in which the authors have created their narratives — they cannot be dissected in quite the way a modern historical narrative can be tested for “evidence”.

They do, however, all contain an important claim. They all claim to be the result of hearing about Jesus from “witnesses”. In Mark’s Gospel, the account of Jesus carrying his cross, with the help of Simon of Cyrene, contains the detail that Simon was the father of Rufus and Alexander. Who were they? No one known to us. But, clearly, to the first people who heard this text read aloud (perhaps in Rome), they were familiar names. You know those middle-aged men Rufus and Alexander, who come to the Eucharist on Sundays? — said the author of Mark — well, their father helped Jesus carry his cross.

The gospels are, historically, as close to Jesus as that. And we have to ask, therefore, what extraordinary experiences the New Testament authors and their friends must have had, which made them write about Jesus in the way they did. One answer would be that they were mad — a plausible view when we consider they were prepared to die for their beliefs. (The word “witness” and the Greek “martyr” quickly became synonymous with those who died). What could be seen as a fifth gospel — the prayer now known as the Roman Canon, of great antiquity — contains long catalogues of names of these early witnesses to the faith. They are the lights who are passed on into the future, eventually reaching us, in our sceptical and post-Christian age.

The non-historical nature of the gospel narratives should not make us dismiss them as inventions. It is simply the case that their way of writing a narrative is not our way. If the authors had been inventing the whole story, they would surely have made it more emphatic, banishing doubt. Instead, almost all the resurrection appearances create as much bewilderment as awe. They persuade the baffled first followers of Christ but there is, for example, no story of an appearance by Jesus to Pontius Pilate, which would surely have put the matter beyond doubt. To doubting Thomas, who in the Fourth Gospel has seen and believed, Jesus said: “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”

That is us. Christianity is not and cannot be a faith of “biblical fundamentalism”, because the Bible is a work of symbolism and mythology that does not contain “evidence” — or, if it does, it does so accidentally. But the moral and spiritual truths that have lit up countless human lives for the past 2,000 years are intimately entwined, in these narratives, with the conviction that “the Lord is risen indeed”.

Leaps of faith: 19th-century rationalists and the Bible

Before she became a famous novelist with the pen-name George Eliot, Mary Ann Evans translated David Friedrich Strauss’s controversial 1835 book Das Leben Jesu (The Life of Jesus). Strauss, a theologian from the University of Tübingen who was much influenced by Hegel, was perhaps the most distinguished of those who argued that all the miraculous and supernatural parts of the gospels were later accretions of mythology.

Crucifix

Strauss believed the gospels were written in the second century, and that their original story had been merely one of a tragic Jewish prophet. Eliot translated the book with tears streaming, as the last vestiges of her faith died away. She was typical of her generation. Though Charles Dickens professed to be shocked by John Everett Millais’ painting of the holy family, “Christ in the House of His Parents” (1849-50), which, he said, depicted Jesus as “a hideous wry-necked, blubbery, red-haired boy in a nightgown”, the great novelist’s The Life of Our Lord, written for children and published long after his death, depicted a non-supernatural figure.

The big seller of the time was Frenchman Ernest Renan’s Vie de Jésus (1863), and it told the same story, of a purely human Jesus. The earliest versions of Jesus were discarded in the 19th century in favour of an idealistic human being in whom it was possible to believe. The ultimate such projection belonged to Tolstoy, who quite literally rewrote the gospels, purging them of miracles.

All these clever men and women represented the norm of 19th-century intellectual life. Although the Church of England went on in its riches and pomp, and although the Pope could declare himself infallible in 1870 — the 19th century really said goodbye to Christianity proper. Even without the assistance of Sir Charles Lyell — whose Principles of Geology (1833) showed that the world was a much older place than Bible literalists had supposed — and even without Charles Darwin showing that life could have evolved without an interventionist God, the intellectuals of the time had decided that they could get by perfectly well without the Christian myth.

The story of the Incarnate God, and the redeeming Passion and the Risen Christ were laid by in favour of a Jesus you could believe in — a radical working man a little like the hero of one of George Eliot’s early fictions.

AN Wilson’s ‘The Book of the People: How to Read the Bible’ is published by Atlantic on May 7

Photographs: Eyevine; Alamy

Letters in response to this article:

Newly risen, Jesus rolled his sleeves up and cooked his mates some breakfast / From

Gnostic gospels and the chain of light / From Jo Christiane Ledakis

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