What Is Christianity? And What Is a Christian?: A Dialogue with a Visitor from Far, Far Away, Episode 4
by Erv Taylor | 3 April 2018 | When we last left off in our dialogue with OV, he was clearly put off (he used another less elegant phrase when expressing his reaction) when he learned that Paul had told those living in Thessaloniki that Jesus would return “soon,” but that 2,000 years later, Jesus had still not returned.
“In other words,” OV protested, “Paul either didn’t know what he was talking about, or he simply lied. Which one is it?”
“Well,” I admitted, “Paul clearly was wrong about the ‘soon’ part, but I’m sure that. . . .”
AT interrupted the beginning of my attempt to explain, saying, “If Paul was wrong about that rather important issue, what else was Paul wrong about?”
Again, I began to explain Paul’s problems, when AT continued: “Also, who is Paul talking about when he uses the word ‘Christ’ in connection with Jesus? What or who is ‘Christ’?”
“Well,” I replied, “that’s a long story.”
“Why am I not surprised?” OV retorted. “It seems that it is impossible to explain what is going on with Paul and his way of explaining about Jesus without making things very complicated and convoluted. Have you have considered that, because he never knew Jesus when he was alive, perhaps his ideas about him are, shall we say, at the very least, confused?”
“It does appear to be that way, doesn’t it?” I lamely replied.
OV responded, “It doesn’t appear that way; it is.”
I found myself trying to steer the conversation away from Paul’s goof (that’s what OV called it later), saying, “Let’s see if I can explain the term ‘Christ,’ as applied by Paul and other later Christian writers to Jesus.”
“How long is this going to take?” OV asked, looking at his watch. Well, it really is not a watch like Earth people wear. It’s a device that tells him about alignments of what we call “worm holes” in the fabric of space/time, that allows him to travel quickly between our solar system and his home planet. If he didn’t use the worm holes, it would take him around four Earth years even if he traveled close to light speed, which his transport ship can do. The problem is that he has to enter the appropriate data into a device on his transport vehicle to calculate when and where the next closest worm hole will open up. He says that people on his planet have been working on creating worm holes, rather than calculating when and where they open up. But creating is apparently far in the future. Once he arrives at the opening of the correct worm hole and enters, he told me that his trip to near his home planet at the other end of a given worm hole takes about one Earth day.
Returning to the explanation about what the word “Christ” means, I told OV, “I will try to keep my explanation simple.” “That will be a first,” he replied.
I ignored his comment.
I began, “The word ‘Christ’ in English comes from the word ‘christos’ in Greek. Christos is the translation of a Hebrew word which we write as ‘Messiah.’ Some Jews of Jesus’ time believed that their God would send some special person who would free them, or save them, from being ruled by the Romans. Other Jews had other ideas. The ancient meaning of the Hebrew term messiah was an ‘anointed one.’ This meant someone − like an ancient Hebrew king − who had undergone a special ritual that included pouring oil (anointing) over his head. Other words used to describe the Jewish Messiah were ‘deliverer’ and ‘savior,’ and Jesus’ followers applied the term ‘Christ’ to Jesus.”
OV looked somewhat puzzled and asked: “Did Jesus apply that term to himself?”
“There are differences of opinion on that point,” I responded. “There are certainly passages in several of the New Testament narratives about Jesus − called “the gospels” − which can be interpreted to say that he did. However, these passages can be viewed as ambiguous. And it is not entirely clear if some of these statements have been, shall we say, creatively reworded to have them say what many of the later followers of Jesus came to believe about Jesus.
OV brightened up: “Speaking of the New Testament narratives about Jesus’ life, these ‘gospels,’ as you say, . . .” and then he paused . . . and asked: “Why are they called ‘gospels’?”
“The term is an English translation of a Greek word which means ‘good news,’” I explained. “Apparently, it originally referred to the nature of Jesus’ teachings and then got transferred to refer specifically to the four books in the New Testament which report on the life of Jesus and his teachings.”
OV responded, “These are the four books named for the individuals whose names are attached to them, right?”
“Correct.” I said. “The order that they appear in the texts we have is: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Most people lump Matthew, Mark, and Luke together and call them the “Synoptic gospels” because all three have the appearance of being organized to give a rough chronological synopsis of important events in Jesus’ life and, in this context, relate his teachings. They also borrowed from each other, but who was first and exactly who borrowed from whom, and when, has involved a lot of discussion with all kinds of different opinions. They often tell the same stories, sometimes with different emphases. But sometimes one of them is the only narrative that has Jesus doing something or saying something. Each synoptic views Jesus through a somewhat different lens which makes him out to be a somewhat different kind of teacher, with a slightly different message.
“By the way,” I said, “you may be interested in knowing that some scholars think that some of the gospels were written to counteract or respond to some of the things that Paul wrote in his letters.”
“I hope so,” said OV. “Someone needed to call Paul out concerning some of his ideas.”
He continued, “But you only talked about three of the gospels. How about the fourth one?”
“That’s the gospel of John. That book is a completely different type of work, having a very different purpose in telling Jesus’ story. It is more of a theological treatise.”
OV perked up: “Theological treatise? What’s that? What do you mean by ‘theological’?”
Oh-oh, I chided myself, I did it again.
“Well,” I began, “the word ‘theological’ derives from two Greek words: theos, meaning God, and logos, which has a lot of meanings, but here might be translated something like ‘thinking or studying or talking about.’ So in this case, the word would identify those who ‘study or think about God.’”
“Really?” OV responded. “Study God?” Then he said slowly: “Do I remember correctly that this is your word for what my people call variously ‘The Mysterious One’ or ‘Being’?”
“I think that’s right,” I said.
OV began to smile. “Is this another one of your jokes? ‘Studying God?’”
“No,” I protested, “there are some very smart and well-educated people who do that as their full-time job.”
OV was left speechless with his mouth half open. After a long silence came another dreaded “Hmm” from OV. But this time, it was long and drawn out. Then, “I’m trying to think of a word or phrase in your language to describe what I’m thinking right now. The first word that comes to mind is ‘arrogance.’ Even two words: ‘supreme arrogance.’”
“What’s the problem?” I asked.
OV responded: “Do you really think that you or I possess any basis at all for talking about, let alone ‘studying,’ the nature of the ‘The Mysterious One’ or, to use your term, ‘God’? Compared to the ‘Mysterious One,’ we are at the level of − let’s see if I can think of one of your animals or insects as a comparison − How about a chicken or better still, an ant? But that might be too optimistic. Or, how about your pond scum?”
“Come on,” I countered, “it’s not that bad!” OV quickly shot back: “I agree. It’s worse.”
He quickly added, “It appears that we will not come to a consensus on this point, so I need to proceed to raise questions specifically about Jesus and his teachings without reference to Paul, who, it seems to me, created more problems in understanding Jesus than was necessary by creating a — what do you call it, ‘a theological package’? He brings in a lot of details that make no sense to me.”
OV continued, “So let’s move our conversation to Jesus directly and the ideas of the people who say they knew him while he was alive.”
On a slightly different topic, he mentioned that during the previous night he had walked around our town trying to find where Christians congregate. “You told me that happens every seven Earth days, right?”
“That’s been the pattern for a long time,” I said. “We call seven days a ‘week.’”
“Fine,” said OV. “You told me to look for a building that had “church” in its title. Right?”
“Yep,” I said.
OV continued, “I think I found a couple such buildings, but for the life of me, I couldn’t figure out the symbol that was attached to both of these buildings − I couldn’t tell if it was significant or not.”
“Symbol? What symbol?” I asked.
“It looked like two crossed sticks, but they were . . . how do you say in English? . . . Ah, yes, they were perpendicular to each other. Wow, that’s a mouthful, perpendicular.”
“Ah,” I responded, “it’s a cross. That is the symbol of Christianity.”
“Oh, interesting,” OV said, “What does it represent?
We will leave off here with the report of my continuing conversations with OV. In the next installment, I try to explain to OV what the cross represents in Christianity. I already know that he is not going to be a happy camper when he hears my explanation.
It also turns out that I don’t have a lot more time to explain Jesus and Christianity to OV, as he has found out that that the oxygen in our atmosphere is causing him problems. He calls oxygen a form of pollution. He breathes mostly what we call methane.
Last time he traveled back to his home planet, he took a sample from our atmosphere for analysis. When he returned the next time, he said that he was warned not to stay here any longer.
He already wears a piece of equipment while he is here which filters out most of the oxygen pollutant, but the large amounts that they must deal with have created problems with the ability of his breathing gear to bring the oxygen levels down into his save zone.
Also, the oxygen and water content of our atmosphere is beginning to attack parts of his transport vehicle. So we probably will have to cut short our discussion with him so that his health is not permanently damaged.
Ervin Taylor is Emeritus Professor of Anthropology and Past Director of the Radiocarbon Laboratory at the University of California, Riverside. He is also currently a Visiting Professor at the Cotsen Institute of Archaeology at UCLA and Visiting Scientist at the Keck Carbon Cycle Accelerator Mass Spectrometry Laboratory at the University of California, Irvine. He has served as the Executive Editor of Adventist Today.