A new interpretive approach: Viewing the Bible as an esoteric critique of esoteric religion

“For Plato ideas are archetypes of the things themselves, and not, in the manner of the categories, merely keys to possible experiences.  In his view they have issued from highest reason, and from that source have come to be shared in by human reason, which, however, is now no longer in its original state, but is constrained laboriously to recall, by a process of reminiscence (which is named philosophy), the old ideas, now very much obscured.  I shall not engage here in any literary enquiry into the meaning which this illustrious philosopher attached to the expression.  I need only remark that it is by no means unusual, upon comparing the thoughts which an author has expressed in regard to his subject, whether in ordinary conversation or in writing, to find that we understand him better than he has understood himself.  As he has not sufficiently determined his concept, he has sometimes spoken, or even thought, in opposition to his own intention.”

—Immanuel Kant, Critique of Pure Reason (1787), B370 (Norman Kemp Smith, trans.; the emphasis is mine)

I’m going to suggest a very big paradox—one that may at first be difficult to get one’s mind around.  I believe there is actually reason to think that the authors of the Bible may have been using an “esoteric” (i.e., “cryptic”) mode of discourse in their writings with the partially unconscious intention of criticizing the esoteric form of religion (a category in which I would include orthodox Christianity, Judaism, and Gnosticism, among many other world religions).

By “esoteric religion,” I basically have in mind any religion whose core, authoritative writings are capable of having and were intended by its authors to have “double meanings”; so that any religion whose authoritative writings are overtly and indisputably allegorical, or parabolic, or obscurely metaphorical, symbolic, or figurative, would qualify as an “esoteric” religion.  And any “mythical” religion would necessarily also be an “esoteric” religion, since “myth” obviously involves obscurely metaphorical, symbolic, or figurative communication.

My personal belief is that the so-called “mythicist” position regarding the life narrative of Jesus, which views that life narrative as myth or allegory, is the correct one; and that means, based on what I just wrote, that I believe Christianity qualifies as an “esoteric religion.”  Even if it were assumed for the sake of argument that the character of “Jesus” was originally based on a single historical individual, so long as it can be shown that there was substantial embellishment, “legend-making,” “myth-making,” and allegorizing occurring in the telling of his life-story, then at some point that just blends into the mythicist position anyway.  So the essential question to be asked is whether or not significant allegorical or mythical elements can be discerned in the Gospel narratives of Jesus’s life story; if they can, the figure of “Jesus” becomes a “mythical” figure—and thus an “esoteric” figure, located at the center of an “esoteric” religion.  Mythicist authors have already made an argument for the position that these allegorical or mythical elements do in fact exist in the supposedly “historical” accounts found in the Gospels and elsewhere in the Bible; so that, in terms of what I am personally trying to do, I do not feel the need to revisit that particular argument except to refer people to the writings of those authors if they still have doubts about the allegorical or mythical nature of the Gospels.  (As for myself, based partly on the amount of time I have spent trying to make sense of the Bible, I cannot help but consider the matter to be obvious, and so have not felt any pressing need to read those authors’ books myself.)

[As an aside, even if one were to assume for the sake of argument that Jesus was an entirely historical figure, and that the details of his life story were in no way allegorized or mythicized, it is indisputable that he spoke in the language of esotericism, by way of the cryptic parables, proverbs, figures, and similitudes that he would tell.  That means that even if one does not accept the mythicist position regarding the life narrative of Jesus, it is, in theory, still possible to view the New Testament Gospels as esoteric writings that were—at least potentially—meant to express opposition to the esoteric form of religion, whenever one finds such parabolic, or proverbial, or figurative communications being made.  Having said that, however, I emphasize that I do think an interpreter will have far more success in his or her efforts to “make sense” of the Bible if the assumption is first made that the life narrative of Jesus was in fact deliberately designed and constructed for the purpose of “being mythical,” that is to say, having esoteric significance.  I say that partly because I believe that many of the parables that Jesus tells in the Gospels were meant to be understood by the reader as implicitly relating to the events of his own life story, and as referring to the symbolic significance of those events—making it difficult, if not impossible, to neatly separate the two types of textual material from each other.  As an example of what I mean, first consider the use of the Greek word ek-cheō, meaning “to pour out,” in the “Parable of the Wineskins” that Jesus tells in Matthew 9:17; and then consider the use of the same word in Matthew 26:27-29, where Jesus is speaking of himself, and is analogizing the “pouring out” (ek-cheō) of “wine” to the “pouring out” (or “shedding”: ek-cheō) of his own “blood.”]

What I am trying to do here is alert people to the enormous opportunity that is effectively opened up once one adopts the mythicist or allegorist position regarding Biblical interpretation, and once one thereby comes to regard the Bible as an “esoteric document.”  The debate between the mythicist position and the historicist position is not merely an “academic” debate, so to speak, because there is, I believe, a more fundamental debate lurking beneath the surface:  the debate as to whether the Bible is to be approached as the expression solely of the thinking of the authors’ conscious minds, or of their unconscious minds as well.  Once a person considers it permissible to regard the Gospels and other parts of the Bible as symbolic/esoteric myth or allegory, and not as literal historical accounts, then it becomes possible to interpret that myth or allegory however one likes—by which I mean, not that anyone should invent meanings or motives that aren’t really there, but rather, that it then becomes possible to focus and lay emphasis upon whichever of the authors’ multiple and contending originally intended meanings or motives the interpreter considers it to be most socially desirable that other persons give their attention to.  And I believe the most “socially desirable” possible meanings would be ones that were opposed to the perpetuation of religious esotericism as a system—so, if it is indeed possible for such meanings to be fairly discerned in the text, then I believe we ought to be making strenuous efforts to call attention to them.

Unlike the approach followed by many other non-Christians, the approach I am suggesting generally involves taking the Bible extremely seriously, and being keenly focused on sympathetically recapturing the intended meanings of the authors of the New Testament.  In fact, persons who chose to follow this mythicist, anti-esotericist approach to interpretation would actually be more interested in ascertaining the originally intended meanings of the authors than ordinary literalist Christians are, since they would be acting according to the general belief that—at least in the case of an esoteric or heavily symbolic text—the intended meaning of an author can only be grasped in its fullness by examining both the conscious and unconscious dimensions of that meaning.  One implication of that difference in orientation is that those persons who chose to follow this mythicist, anti-esotericist interpretive approach would want to learn as much about the original Greek and Hebrew texts of the Bible as they were able to do (even if they never became proficient in those languages, as I also am not), and not be content to trustingly accept the understandings of translators who almost certainly took no interest whatsoever in trying to discern “unconscious motives” or “unconscious meanings” in the language used by the authors of the Bible.  It should go without saying that “pious” and “devout” Christian translators have never been open to the possibility that a conscious meaning or motive expressed in the text of the New Testament might, in a particular instance, actually be contradicted by other, more unconscious meanings or motives; in fact, it would literally constitute blasphemy for them even to suggest that it might.  And, because of that, even the more conscious meanings given in their translations cannot be relied upon, since various “clues” in the original text potentially pointing toward the more unconscious meanings get “written out” of the translation—since, their full significance not being understood by the translator, they are judged to be “unimportant” and merely “confusing to the reader.”

(It should be noted that not only would anti-esotericist mythicist interpreters, unlike literalist and historicist interpreters, be more open to the possibility of the existence of unconsciously intended meanings in the Biblical text:  To take an anti-esotericist approach actually requires one to assume that certain unconsciously entertained intentions must have been at work in the minds of the authors that the authors themselves weren’t fully consciously aware of—but I believe that there is a substantial amount of evidence that justifies the making of such an assumption.)

In short, I believe non-Christians ought to set up a battle of interpretations—and do so in such a way that we interpret the Bible in a way that works to eventually undermine the social authority enjoyed by the Bible in its current form.  And I have assembled textual evidence that leads me to believe that this can actually be done, in a way that is both intellectually honest and persuasive.

I am well aware that what I am proposing is difficult work.  It is also mentally unsettling and disorienting work; an interpreter will be giving up many of the former mental moorings and bearings upon which he or she has been in the habit of relying.  And I believe many people, at some level, realize this—which is probably one reason why there is as much resistance to the mythicist position as there is, among both academic scholars and “laymen.”  Mythicists have opened the door to possibilities that some people find quite disturbing; and understandably so.

But no matter how difficult or disturbing it may be, I believe it is the kind of work that must be engaged in if we are to have a realistic chance of finally bringing an end to the pervasive and systemic lying and self-deception to which Christianity and other esoteric religions necessarily and inevitably force people to become accustomed.  And even as some of our other mental moorings and bearings are surrendered, we would be able to find a new and better kind of mental stability in a shared anti-esotericist conviction.  The anti-esotericist conviction is the one overriding mental conviction that would serve as the metaphorical “axis” around which all of our interpretive decisions would ultimately be made; and it would provide the metaphorical “sword” enabling us to cut through our immediate mental confusion—after we had first allowed ourselves to be placed squarely in the midst of that mental confusion and immersed in it.  In other words, we would temporarily accept some of the esotericist’s mental confusion on the basis of a kind of faith that by doing so we might ultimately transcend and overcome that confusion in its entirety—once and for all.

With the growing acceptance of the mythicist approach to understanding the Bible, non-Christians now have the opportunity to do something far more valuable and effective than opposing Christianity merely by way of criticizing or ridiculing the content of its authoritative texts—all the while taking for granted that Christians’ interpretations of those texts are indeed correct.  In and of itself, criticizing or ridiculing Christians’ interpretations of the Bible is a course of action that offends Christians and thus forces them into a defensive posture, even while, in the eyes of many of them, doing nothing to seriously challenge the authority of those texts.  (However, that is not to say that criticism and ridicule of that content are never appropriate, or that it ought to be excluded entirely in one’s opposition to Christianity—since some of that content is, of course, quite absurd when taken literally, and we shouldn’t shy away from pointing out that fact if the matter comes up.)

Non-Christians might consider pursuing a different approach.  We might decide to no longer challenge and question the authority of the Biblical texts; and instead begin to consistently challenge and question the generally accepted interpretations given to those texts—at the same time as offering new interpretations in their place.  Approaching the Bible as a myth—or, to think of it another way, as a kind of dream—from which we could begin to deliberately and systematically glean the more unconscious intentions of its authors, would give us the opportunity to take advantage of the social authority currently enjoyed by the Biblical texts, and to turn that authority against itself:  to temporarily “hijack” that authority, so to speak; but—importantly—we would be doing so in an open, public, and intellectually honest way.  We would never make any disingenuous claims that we were “followers” or “adherents” of the Bible, or that we considered this to be “our” book, thus giving us some special or unique right to interpret it; nor would we ever try to pretend that we were anything other than anti-esotericist interpreters.  And so, while our work would admittedly be “subversive,” in a sense, it would never be subversive in the sense of being “tricky,” or of leading anyone to feel that he or she had been betrayed or misled by what we were doing.  We would be viewing the Bible from the perspective of objective but still not disinterested analysts—and not as fellow Christians.  The Bible is a public document, which means that every member of society has just as much right to try to make sense of it as any other member of society does.  Furthermore, it is important to realize that in their minds, the authors of the Bible conceived objective intentions that were being expressed by their writings (by which I mean, it is an objective fact that they did conceive and entertain those intentions at some certain point in time in the historical past—whether or not they themselves were, or anyone else in the world has ever yet become, consciously aware of the existence of those intentions).  And because those intentions are—in theory—still capable of being objectively determined, by objective means, we non-Christians have just as much right to make the attempt to objectively determine them as Christians do.

What we would be doing is this:  Telling a different story—using the very same authoritative textual materials that many people in our society are already accustomed to.  And the story we would tell people is this:  In their writings, the authors of the Bible were, of course, expressing a desire for a number of things; but what the authors of the Bible really desired more than anything else was for religious esotericism—and its keeping of “secret meanings” or “hidden meanings”—to come to an end.  That would explain why they were so utterly obsessed in their writings with dichotomous themes of:  “shutting” (or “closing,” or “locking”), and “opening”; and “making secret,” and “making public”; and “hiding” (or “fleeing”), and “discovering”; and “concealing” (or “veiling”), and “revealing”; and “binding,” and “releasing”; and “obscurity,” and “clarity” (or “transparency”); and symbolic “caves” (or “tombs”), and “(open) fields” (or “mountaintops,” or “hilltops,” or “housetops”); and “darkness” (or “shadow”), and “light”; and “innerness,” and “outerness”; and so on.  (And once a reader zeroes in on particular themes such as these in the Bible, he or she will come to realize just how incessantly the authors of the Bible were in fact talking about the problem of esotericism.)  We would explain to people that even though the authors of the Bible obviously spoke in esoteric terms themselves, in their heart of hearts, they didn’t really like esotericism or want it to continue.  It was a system begun by others that they were born into, and that they found themselves unable to leave for some reason.  Their unresolved dilemma was rooted in the fact that they were never completely able to bring an end to that system first and foremost in their own conscious minds; and, as a result, they were permanently caught in the “trap” of esotericism—just as the generations before them had been.

If we, as anti-esotericist mythicist interpreters, were to make a conscious point of not getting “caught” in the trap of esotericism ourselves—by being completely clear and explicit about our goals, and by being completely clear and explicit about the moral evil of religious esotericism and of lying in general—then we may be able to accomplish what those authors were not able to accomplish themselves due to a lack of conscious awareness in their thinking.  I believe we may have an opportunity available to us that those authors, for whatever reason, did not have available to them:  to use rational thinking and analysis (including psychoanalysis) to better explain what the authors of the New Testament and of certain other esoteric writings may have really been getting at all along in their writings; and we would do this so that people might find it easier to finally put the whole matter of religious esotericism behind them for good, and move on to clear, open, truthful, rational, meaningful, non-esoteric forms of organized belief.

Just as I began this post with a quotation from the 18th-century German philosopher Immanuel Kant, so too will I end with one.  Kant here seems to be endorsing something roughly similar to the general approach to the interpretation of the Bible which I advocate above:

An attempt such as the present … to discover in Scripture that sense[1] which harmonizes with the most holy teachings of reason is not only allowable but must be deemed a duty.  And we can remind ourselves of what the wise Teacher said to His disciples regarding someone who went his own way, by which, however, he was bound eventually to arrive at the same goal: “Forbid him not; for he that is not against us is for us” [quoting Mark 9:39-40].

(Source: Religion Within the Limits of Reason Alone [Theodore M. Greene and Hoyt H. Hudson, trans.; Harper Torchbooks, 1960], p. 78.  The italics are Kant’s; the emboldening and underlining is mine.)

[1] In a footnote inserted here by Kant, he also writes, “And it may be admitted that it is not the only one.”