Sunday, March 30, 2008

Historian’s Double Standards Exile Sri Rama - Again!

Kalavai Venkat on India Forum

The Rama Setu controversy has been rocking India for the last many months. Hindus believe that Sri Rama built a bridge to Sri Lanka, and hence the place is sacred. The government wants to dredge the channel and obliterate the formation. The controversial ex-JNU historian Romila Thapar recently (The Hindu, September 28, 2007) dismissed the historicity of Rama because there are several mutually irreconcilable versions of The Ramayana. She then made a startling claim:

“This does not happen with the biographies of those who were known to be historical figures and who founded belief systems: the Buddha, Jesus Christ, Mohammad. Their biographies adhere largely to a single story-line and this helps to endorse the ‘official’ narrative of their life. Their existence is recorded in other sources as well that are not just narratives of their lives but have diverse associations. The historicity of the Buddha, for example, is established, among other things, by the fact that a couple of centuries after he died, the emperor Ashoka on a visit to Lumbini had a pillar erected to commemorate the Buddha’s place of birth.”

Examining the evidence for the Buddha

Ashoka’s erecting a pillar at Lumbini merely confirms his belief that the Buddha was born there. It does not constitute an independent proof of Lumbini having been the place of the Buddha’s birth. If the exact palace in Kapilavastu, where according to the tradition the Buddha was raised, had been excavated, along with a contemporary inscription confirming the birth, it would have constituted an independent proof. That is not the case.

Legends accrue and persist even today. In Mary Through The Centuries – Her Place In The History Of Culture (Yale, 1996), Professor Jaraslov Pelikan describes reports of appearance of the apparition of Virgin Mary in the Croatian-speaking village of Medjugorje in 1981. Over the next 15 years, at least 20 million faithful went on a pilgrimage to Medjugorje.

Do these pilgrimages of the faithful constitute proof of the Virgin’s visitation in 1981? They certainly do not. They merely demonstrate the persistence of an extraordinary belief among the faithful. Similarly, Ashoka’s pious act of erecting a pillar is a consecration of his belief that the Buddha was born there and not a reinforcement of the historical evidence for the birth.

I do not argue that the Buddha did not exist; just that the Ashokan Pillar does not prove his existence. Ancient societies did not display the same historical skepticism some of the moderns display. Lumbini residents who were contemporaries of Ashoka would not have subjected the belief that the Buddha was born in Lumbini 250 years ago to skepticism nor possessed the wherewithal to examine the historical evidence.

Examining the evidence for Jesus

Let us now examine Thapar’s bold claim about Jesus: “(His) existence is recorded in other sources as well.”
In Jesus – Apocalyptic Prophet Of The New Millennium (Oxford, 1999), Professor Bart Ehrman, reflecting the conclusions of the most scientific, factual, and scholarly biblical research writes:

“As odd as it may seem, there is no mention of Jesus at all by any of his pagan contemporaries. There are no birth records, no trial transcripts, no death certificates; there are no expressions of interest, no heated slanders, no passing references – nothing. In fact, if we broaden our field of concern to the years after his death – even if we include the entire first century of the Common Era – there is not so much as a solitary reference to Jesus in any non-Christian, non-Jewish source of any kind. No other non-Christian Jewish source written before 130 CE, within a hundred years of Jesus’ death, so much as mentions him.”

The attitude toward the historicity of Jesus even until the second century is best reflected in the writings of the Jewish philosopher Trypho, who mocked Christians: “Christianity is based on a rumor and that if Jesus was born and lived somewhere he is entirely unknown.”
The early church was uncomfortable about this lack of evidence. In The Jesus Myth (Open Court, 1999), Professor George Wells shows that pious Christians even interpolated references to Jesus in the writings of the first century Jewish historian Josephus. This clumsy forgery was unwittingly exposed by the third century church father Origen!

If Jesus was historically elusive for two millennia, researches sponsored by the Discovery channel in the last three years - after Ehrman and Wells published their books - have brought out evidence for Jesus that none expected. In The Jesus Family Tomb – The Discovery, The Investigation, And The Evidence That Could Change History (Harper, 2007), Simcha Jacobovici and Charles Pellegrino record the accidental discovery of the Jesus family tomb ossuaries in Jerusalem and deploy cutting edge techniques from DNA testing, geology, paleography, archeology, and statistics to establish his identity. This discovery renders the narratives of Jesus in The Bible untenable.

Thapar’s fantastic proclamation that Jesus’ existence is attested in contemporary accounts is a baseless propaganda that belongs to the pulpit. It is disturbing to see historians abandon truth and end up as Christian apologists.

Imagining a “single story-line”

Thapar wants her readers to believe that the biography of Jesus “adhere(s) largely to a single story-line and this helps to endorse the ‘official’ narrative of (his) life.”
In Lost Christianities – The Battles For Scripture And The Faiths We Never Knew (Oxford, 2003), Bart Ehrman shows that early Christian sects held diverse accounts that were doctrinally irreconcilable, and consequently resulted in conflicting accounts of Jesus. The fourth century church father Epiphanius attacks 80 such ‘heretical’ sects at length. Ebionites, the earliest Christians, believed that Jesus was a mortal who observed the Jewish laws perfectly and hence was adopted by God as His son. Marcionites, who subscribed to the notion of two Gods, argued that Jesus did not possess a physical body.
In James, The Brother of Jesus – The Key To Unlocking The Secrets of Early Christianity And The Dead Sea Scrolls (Viking, 1996), Professor Robert Eisenman shows that the James Christians, the immediate followers of Jesus, were not only vegetarians but held beliefs that were at odds with the Roman church. Apostle Paul systematically attacked James, and had James executed. James Christians soon faded away from history paving the way for the Roman church.
In The Gnostic Gospels (Vintage, 1979), Professor Elaine Pagels demonstrates that the early Gnostic Christians ridiculed the literal belief in the resurrection of Jesus as the “faith of the fools.” Gnostics were Docetists who held that Jesus did not have a physical body; to them, all accounts of Jesus were symbolic.
Pagels shows that the early Roman church acknowledged that some Gnostic teachings and customs closely resembled those of the Buddhists and the Brahmins. It called these teachings heresies, sought doctrinal conformity, and brutally suppressed the ‘heresies.’ Strange as it may sound, the church argued that its own canonical teachings must be believed “because they are absurd!”
In other words, the “single story-line” that Thapar cherishes resulted because the Roman church suppressed the irreconcilable - usually the more trustworthy – versions that negated the party-line. On the other hand, the multiple versions of The Ramayana she patronizingly dismisses are the living proof for Hindu tolerance and pluralism.

Historian or the pulpit preacher?

In Misquoting Jesus - The Story Behind Who Changed The Bible And Why (Harper, 2005), Bart Ehrman demonstrates that The Bible was edited at least 200, 000 times, and that there are more manuscript variations of The Bible than there are words in it! These alterations, Ehrman shows, resulted in often conflicting accounts of the same narratives.

If the narratives of Jesus’ birth of both Matthew 1:18-2:23 and Luke 1-2 were to be correct, Jesus must have been born when Herod ruled Judea and Quirinius governed Syria. This is historically impossible because Herod died in 4 BCE while Quirinius became the governor of Syria only ten years later in 6 CE!
If one trusts the crucifixion account of Matthew 27:45-46, Jesus helplessly cried, “Father, father, why have you forsaken me?” On the other hand, if one trusts Luke 23:34, Jesus coolly forgave his tormentors with the beseeching words, "Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing." The two accounts are irreconcilable.

Academics recognized the internal contradictions and mythical elements in The Bible as Europe emerged out of the Dark Ages. In The Life Of Jesus Critically Examined (Sigler, 2002), originally published in 1836, the German theologian David Friedrich Strauss ushered in a brilliant approach that shook Christendom. He embraced the rationalistic approach, and comprehensively analyzed the biblical accounts as myths whose intent is not to convey a historical narrative but to convey a higher truth through the symbolism of myth. Modern scholarship, which has made significant strides since Strauss wrote, is aware that The Bible is a composite text that was repeatedly edited to fulfill theological agenda before it reached its present form. Scholars wade through a maze of contradictions, myths, and facts to reconstruct the historical Jesus.

Reconstructions based on rigorous scholarship have resulted in variant biographies of the historical Jesus. In Jesus And The Zealots (Charles Scribner, 1967), Professor S G F Brandon reconstructed Jesus the Zealot revolutionary who attempted to overthrow the imperialist Romans. In In Memory Of Her – A Feminist Theological Reconstruction Of Christian Origins (Crossroad, 1983), Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza reconstructed a proto-feminist Jesus. In The Jesus Dynasty – The Hidden History Of Jesus, His Royal Family, And The Birth Of Christianity (Simon & Schuster, 2006), Professor James Tabor reconstructed John the Baptist and Jesus as virtual twins that attempted to usher in the messianic rule in a period of turmoil.
Thapar’s attempt at making The Bible a homogeneous historical source would be met with derision if it were to be made in a gathering of biblical scholars. It is hard to think of an audience outside the pews of an evangelical church in America’s Bible belt where Thapar’s claim will go unchallenged.

Ironically, Thapar’s attempt at exiling Sri Rama from the canvas of history lands Him in the company of Jesus and the Buddha because the historical Sri Rama too must be reconstructed in the same way the historical Buddha or Jesus must be reconstructed from often irreconcilable narratives!
Thapar’s attempt at portraying Christian myths as history becomes more disturbing when seen in the wider context where the Christian right wing has attempted to turn textbooks into tools of religious propaganda in the USA and elsewhere. Some historians complement this evangelical agenda by misleading their readers into believing that Christian narratives constitute reliable history but Hindu narratives are myths.

Academic integrity is the first casualty on the altar of the multi-billion dollar soul-harvesting industry.

Kalavai Venkat is a Silicon Valley-based, orthodox, practising, agnostic Hindu. His articles were part of the recently published anthologies Invading The Sacred – An Analysis Of Hinduism Studies In America (Rupa, 2007) and Expressions Of Christianity (Vivekananda Kendra Prakashan, 2006). He has also critiqued Romila Thapar’s book Early India - From The Origins To AD 1300 in an extensive online review.

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