Wednesday, February 14, 2007

The "Uniqueness" of Messiahs

Mark Goodacre mentions an excellent article by E. P. Sanders concerning the question of Jesus' Uniqueness. Sanders has made a career of pointing out that Jesus' teachings were hardly unique, but scholars have been slow embracing his wisdom -- Steve Davies being one of the refreshing exceptions in Jesus the Healer.

Jesus, by all indications, seems to have been a typical millenial prophet, and we need to remind ourselves that movements are founded all the time by typical, if charismatic, individuals. He promised imminent deliverance to the disaffected, and revised sacred tradition in ways that could be construed as both innovative and conservative -- but usually biting into it with sectarian fangs that upset its guardians. Like many charismatics he left behind followers, worshippers, and adorers who began mythologizing him into something really special and "unique".

Closely related to the question of uniqueness is that of uncritical acceptance. Frank Herbert's sci-fic series is an indictment on both: the Dune messiah turns out to be as typical and fallable as any other for all his accomplishments. In Omni magazine (1980) Herbert said the following:
"Don't give over all of your critical faculties to [heroes/messiahs], no matter how admirable those people may appear to be. Beneath the hero's facade you will find a human being who makes human mistakes. Enormous problems arise when human mistakes are made on the grand scale available to a superhero... Heroes are painful, superheroes are a catastrophe. The mistakes of superheroes involve too many of us in disaster."
That's been the problem with real-world superheroes like Jesus and Muhammad, and why I warm to Christians like Dale Allison who emphasize the Jesus who "made mistakes" and was not so unique after all.


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