What happened to Jesus in the desert?
June 13, 2007 3:50 AM   Subscribe

After being baptized, Jesus immediately went into the desert for 40 days, where he was tempted by the devil. When he came back, he was a transformed man. He was suddenly spouting very clever things (still quoted 2000 years later), and in a few weeks, he had a constant crowd of hundreds to thousands of people around him. What can happen in 40 days that transforms a man from an uneducated carpenter to the greatest philosophical influence that ever existed?

I'm working on the assumption that God does not really exist. I'm a strict atheist. I'm just looking at this from a self-development point of view.

John the baptist baptized Jesus, who at the time was just a normal carpenter with no ambitions towards being the son of god. At the baptism, there was some event where Jesus was told he was the son of god (by John).

He left to the desert, and on coming back, he was different. For one, he could simply command people to follow him. For twos, people obviously were believing that this chap was capable of doing miracles. For threes, he was capable of having intellectual arguments with priests in temples - men who were trained in the Jewish oratory tradition. I.e, men of high intellectual standards.

What could possibly have happened in that desert to not only inspire him, but also give him this ability to inspire others?

Was it that he had the potential prior to this, but did not actually use this? Is there a way that normal guys like you and me can tap into this same desert strength? Are there other famous examples of such sudden transformations from a nobody to someone great?
posted by markovich to Religion & Philosophy (46 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
The image of an "uneducated carpenter" is based more on tradition that text. There is a reference in Mark, I believe, that may have been ironic. Regardless, according to tradition he was of the Davidic line. It is not beyond reason that he had received rabbinical training.
posted by RavinDave at 4:02 AM on June 13, 2007

Response by poster: A lot of books about Napoleon were written by men who never met him, and who lived 150 years after he died. It's the same with the new testament of the bible, a lot of it was written 150 years after Jesus died, but it was based on earlier written material.

And obviously there was SOMEONE who had such a great influence to create the Christian religion....
posted by markovich at 4:03 AM on June 13, 2007

Well it's a bit contradictory for you to take the tales of the New Testament so literally when you don't believe in God. If the New Testament isn't telling the truth about there being a God, why should it be telling the truth about Jesus having gone into the desert for 40 days, having been transformed, etc?

In any case here are some things that might happen in the desert that could somehow transform you:
-Peyote or other psychedelics
-Extreme isolation
posted by poppo at 4:09 AM on June 13, 2007

Response by poster: I'm treating the bible like a history book. Nobody claims that all the Genghis Khan stories are totally fabricated. He existed because it was written down. Has nothing to do with God or not, it just has to do with the history being written down.
posted by markovich at 4:13 AM on June 13, 2007

People do "find their voice" at times and go from not seeking attention to speaking with great eloquence on important matters. This can be inspired by any number of things, including simply hearing about a situation that strikes one as being particularly unjust, or a cause one particularly identifies with, but the most common trigger is a personal crisis of some kind. The death of a loved one, for instance - I'm thinking here of Colin Parry, whose son was killed by an IRA bomb, prompting him to go from being a "regular guy" to being a peace campaigner and charismatic and moving speaker on the importance of reconciliation, dialogue and understanding.

This crisis could, however, be internal - the culmination of an internal conflict, a "breakdown" or breakthrough, possibly even manifestation of some form of mild mental illness. These insights come like a thunderclap - in AA they're called the "moment of clarity". Solitude and isolation, no doubt coupled with exhaustion and dehydration, form an environment conducive to such a change. (Going into the desert/up the mountain for inspiration is a recurring theme in the Bible - think Moses. Also, think of mystic traditions were starving, exhaustion and dehydration are deliberately induced to "speak with god". And Robert th Bruce watching the spider, I suppose.)

So, this thunderclap happens (I'm an atheist myself and see no need for a divine hand here, but I can see how it would fit) and suddenly Jesus finds his subject - injustice, and becomes a spellbinding speaker. He has not suddenly acquired this articulacy and charisma, he possessed it already, but has now found a reason - indeed, an imprative - to use it. Great philosophy is not "new thought" per se, it's the best description of the world around us, so within reach of the layman and non-genius. The miracles and so on are the product of word of mouth distortion. It's the perceived truth of what the man says that makes the man a leader.
posted by WPW at 4:18 AM on June 13, 2007 [3 favorites]

These "Transformations" happen all the time.

Think of Jesus as a motivational speaker. There are plenty of Modern day Jesus about.

A quick Google search on motivational speakers pulled out these bios:

Some athlete "The dynamics of teamwork are described through the story of the World Championship winning 4x400m relay team of 1991 — the belief that the greater good of the team is more important than any individual ego."

Some survival dude "Quinton is a world-renowned speaker who uses his experience as a conservationist specialising in bush survival for teaching business excellence. Quinton Coetzee uses the San people as a metaphor for teaching business excellence."

and some crazy guy "Never having built a boat before, and with only limited sailing experience, Jasper set to work...

The story is dramatic and includes a member of his crew developing acute appendicitis while at sea... death of the crew through drowning or shark attack would surely have been the result... The story tells of sea snakes in the Timor Sea; of navigation by sextant observation of the sun and stars... of gear failure; hallucinations; exhaustion; crew stresses; deportation; some temporary crew dejection; some sheer good fortune; and then finally, finally and against the odds, ‘Sweet Success’. (100 photographs illustrate the presentation).

So here are three people - an athlete, a survival dude and a crazy guy. They regularly speak to 100's of people about life experience.

1000's of years and nothing changes. If you have the gift of the gab you go far in life.

I'd recommend everyone reads "How mumbo jumbo conquered the world" by Francis Wheen.
posted by twistedonion at 4:23 AM on June 13, 2007

I think that facing mortality is an incredibly powerful "gift" for your life, a gift of a sort of wisdom that can't otherwise be gained. I guess mainly this happens by either experiencing the loss of loved ones, or by having your own life threatened.

Like you I also don't believe in God; and am not really sure that a man named Jesus existed, nor that he spent that 40 days and nights in the desert. But if he did, I suggest that the life-threatening nature of the experience could be a significant part of his transformation.

I can't really recommend it as a deliberate course of action though... :S
posted by ancamp at 4:23 AM on June 13, 2007

I don't think it is implausible that a person could have a transformational epiphany... Isolation, contemplation, deprivation, fear.... all prolonged (i.e., 40 days) can profoundly influence the way one views the world.

I share your athiesm, though mine is militant, so I'm not signing up to any myths surrounding Jesus. There are enough conflicts in the stories to bolster a conclusion that they are all only tangentially acquainted with history. The actual number of words ascribed to him is pretty small. Ditto the number of events that are recounted. Most of the New Testament is commentary. I'm not sure that you should put a lot of stock in Jesus' instantaneous transformation into a world class debater or intellect. WHile it could happen, he'd have been arguing from a basis of new conceptual framework instead of content, as content requires study. To the ignorant bystander, they look the same. There are scores of modern day equivalents who fool folks into thinking that their words have more weight than they do. For instance, I see folks constantly claiming that Einstein was wrong, for instance. (Here is a good example of someone who argued from a new conceptual framework, supplemented by sufficient content. ) Many of these folks couldn't tell you anything major that the man did.

The salient point is that if Jesus were witty, remember he was edited. If he were a debater, he was being covered/reported on by a mass of ignorants who could easily confuse large word count with quality reasoning.

Personal charisma, on the other hand, I think might have a foundation in self-knowledge and a keen perception of one's mortality. That might come from the kind of 'vision quest' activity of the allegorical '40 days in the desert'. It certainly shows up in a lot of other cultural coming-of-age ritual.
posted by FauxScot at 4:23 AM on June 13, 2007

but it was based on earlier written material.

How can you possibly know that as true?
posted by twistedonion at 4:26 AM on June 13, 2007

nothing.. it never happened.. the bible is totally made up. 100% fact.

you're as ignorant as people who believe in 100% of the bible

'm treating the bible like a history book. Nobody claims that all the Genghis Khan stories are totally fabricated. He existed because it was written down. Has nothing to do with God or not, it just has to do with the history being written down.

nobody here said Jesus didn't exist. most scholars will agree that there is some history to the various books of the bible. sounds like what you'd like to do is simply discount the supernatural stuff and call the rest history. i'm ok with that. but is it literally true history that an uneducated carpetenter went into the desert and came back the guy who inspired a major religion that has lasted two thousand years, or is it that part of the supernatural stuff that should be ignored?
posted by poppo at 4:30 AM on June 13, 2007

For one, he could simply command people to follow him.

Atheist perspective: no, the entire point was that he made better sense than contemporary philosophers. JC was to Judeism what Buddha was to Hinduism

For twos, people obviously were believing that this chap was capable of doing miracles.

Not a good call, unless you want us to worship Chris Angel

For threes, he was capable of having intellectual arguments with priests in temples - men who were trained in the Jewish oratory tradition. I.e, men of high intellectual standards.

Being qualified in sophistry is hardly a recommendation.
posted by Sparx at 4:31 AM on June 13, 2007

What can happen in 40 days that transforms a man from an uneducated carpenter to the greatest philosophical influence that ever existed?
Let's see...a month holed-up in the King David suite at the Trump-Nazareth Casino with two underage concubines and a constant supply of milk-and-honey?

In other words...intense meditation on the deeper realities of life?
posted by Thorzdad at 4:47 AM on June 13, 2007 [1 favorite]

This question has a whiff of amiriteness, but I'll bite, and point out that none of the four gospels contain the sudden epiphany cited in the post. What gives?
posted by zamboni at 4:47 AM on June 13, 2007

I don't think the transition is as sudden as you think it was. If I remember correctly, there was a story from Jesus' childhood in which His family moving along with a caravan, and they accidentally left Him behind. When they got back to the town where they left Him, He was teaching people in the temple. So I think He was showing signs of brilliance even as a child.

As for the desert thing, though, I imagine that it could change you the way any tough situation can change a person. In Jesus' case,, the experience just brought out the gifts that were already there.

I suppose another example might be Thoreau. I know he did some writing before he moved to Walden, but the isolation and simple way of living he found on that pond really sharpened his ideas. That's a more gradual transition than you might be looking for, though.
posted by christinetheslp at 4:59 AM on June 13, 2007

I remember reading somewhere that the phrase "40 days and 40 nights" is an old expression that means a long, indefinite period of time.

Take the Bible with a pound of salt. If you think about it critically enough, your head will explode.
posted by zardoz at 5:00 AM on June 13, 2007

The whole 'young man goes into the desert / young man goes on a visionquest / young man goes on a crusade / young man goes on a journey to discover the truth' story (read: myth) is probably as old as humanity itself and is repeated in some way by every religion on the planet.

I imagine that you'd have to isolate yourself in the desert for a few weeks to figure it out ;-)
posted by chuckdarwin at 5:01 AM on June 13, 2007 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: zamboni, the gospel of Mark is clearest because it does not go into the details of the time in the desert. Read the first two pages of Mark and you'll see that it is basically written that after the baptism, jesus ran off and came back transformed.
posted by markovich at 5:05 AM on June 13, 2007

Maybe while out there in the desert, Jesus essentially went on a walkabout (in the Australian Aborigine sense of the term). The idea of going out into the wilderness as a rite of passage to reconnect with oneself and find out who you really are seems to fit in nicely with the narrative of the Temptation of Christ.

I believe there are Walkabout tours that you can go on if you ever visit Australia, and this is perhaps one way you can go about "tapping into" this inner strength. Maybe.
posted by Effigy2000 at 5:19 AM on June 13, 2007

Actually, it was not John that told Jesus he was the Son of God, God told Jesus he was the son of God.

Matthew 3:17: And a voice from heaven said, "This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased."

This is repeated in the books of Mark and Luke. In John nothing is said about the desert, and John the Baptist says he saw the spirit descending upon Jesus.

Presumably, the spirit descending gave Jesus quite a bit to think about and the time in the desert was spent doing so (in one gospel he is waited on by angels, as well).

Also, if you read Luke, which goes more into the childhood of Jesus than the other gospels, Jesus grew up wise, even impressing rabbis at the temple when he was 11 with his wisdom. So the transformation-by-desert issue may be moot.
posted by Anonymous at 5:21 AM on June 13, 2007

Strength and growth come from overcoming adversity. After you have spent forty days traveling in a desert with no food, and facing temptations to your life view, including a temptation of food after such a fast, and you overcome the hardships and the temptations, then you will be stronger too. You still won't be Jesus though.
posted by caddis at 5:29 AM on June 13, 2007

Christian, here.

The "change" did not happen in the desert. It happened just before, when the Holy Spirit descended on him as a dove. He knew who he was long before this, but "his time had not yet come."

Jesus was/is fully God and fully man. When he walked on this earth he emptied himself of his godlike powers and walked as a man-a man empowered by the Holy Spirit.

If you look into the Bible carefully you will see a pattern of "wilderness experiences." Abraham wandered in the wilderness. The children of Israel wandered in the wilderness after escaping from Egypt. Even Paul spent three years in the desert, so to speak, after God "knocked him off his high horse."
posted by konolia at 5:31 AM on June 13, 2007 [2 favorites]

read jim crace's "quarantine." it's fiction, but interesting.

people tend not to go into the desert to fast and pray unless they're looking for something in the first place. from a purely human standpoint, i would imagine that jesus had been wrestling with his faith and ideas for a long time and sought the solitude to sort them out. he wasn't some punk who took a wrong turn on his way to burning man and got lost for a month--he was already actively seeking answers.

in my mind, he did something not dissimilar to what artists and academics do when they go on sabbatical or retreat for a month--they step away from the demands of everyday life to gain a little "headspace". a change of scenery, a little physical rigor, a little sensory discipline can do wonders for a creative mind.
posted by thinkingwoman at 5:35 AM on June 13, 2007

Was it that he had the potential prior to this, but did not actually use this?

But he *did* use it. schroedinger has it; in the world of the stories you're deciding to accept as "history" in this hypothetical question, Jesus had been wowing crowds throughout his life.
posted by mediareport at 5:40 AM on June 13, 2007

There are many spiritual traditions where a transformation sudden or gradual can occur, changing a person's beliefs, outlooks and behavior. "What happened to Jesus" is unanswerable, but plenty of people have become awakened. But I think someone else has said it all much better than me...
posted by shothotbot at 5:51 AM on June 13, 2007

No where is Jesus said to be uneducated. A carpenter would have been highly respected in those times. There is nothing to suggest the family was simple or poor. They were Davidic. Also , according to the story, Mary and Joseph knew who their son was.

But if you divorce yourself from the mysticism explicit in the New Testament, you can not fully comprehend what took place. I don't care if you're atheist or the Pope himself. Without understanding the mystical side of things, your comprehension will be incomplete.

The Burning Bush was pale in comparison with what happened to Jesus at his baptism. That bush kept its distance from Moses! But it is the Fire Which Quenches I'm talking about. It engulfs but does not burn.

Think about it, just a moment. What happens if you add infinity to 1? Meditate on that. And remember this little dandy of a quote:
"Before the world was, I am"
posted by Goofyy at 5:55 AM on June 13, 2007 [2 favorites]

More likely than not, Jesus had some hallucinatory experiences in the desert, either from extreme hunger, thirst, sensory deprivation, heat stroke, or maybe even from ingesting some poisonous insect or repitile or plant. Possibly he took some datura. Or perhaps he fell in with some gnostics or ascetics and had some wil experiences with them.

I'm an atheist (recovering born-again, actually) too, but not a big enough a-hole to derail this thread.
posted by mds35 at 6:16 AM on June 13, 2007

First, a nitpick, Jesus was not the greatest philosophical influence the world has ever known. There are a lot of different, meaningful ways to think of Jesus, philosopher isn't one of them.

If you are looking at this as an atheist _AND_ you see something of value in Jesus' view of the world, then that can best be approached by looking at the Gospel of Thomas. The movement that Jesus started was influenced by the canonical gospels and St. Paul. But that's not what you're interested in, because Jesus might have been a lunatic whose name and story was spread and achieved mythic dimensions. By assuming that something of value happened in the desert you accept the notion that it is his perspective that had value not necessarily what came after. If his view has no value then he is just some other schmo with a mistaken idea about the world that is blown out of proportion, perhaps what Scientology might be like in another 50-100 years.

The Gospel of Thomas is the oldest record we have of the sayings of Jesus, it is very likely that it was used as a source when the evangelists composed the synoptic gospels. At least 2 of them used it, maybe all 3; I forget. As a professor once told me, the parables in particular and many of the other sayings, have a 'joke' structure. That is, at the end they invert the presuppositions. I think that structure is significant. Many mystics teach or propose that the conventional view of the world is ass backwards. One example is Buddha claiming that striving after desire does not increase our satisfaction or happiness but leads to more pain. Again from Buddha, or perhaps some other anonymous Buddhist, instead of our thoughts being conscious creations, they are random occurrences that pass through our mind for however long we are attached to them. Jesus denied the value of revenge in a violent time and place. Israel of course, was occupied by Rome and there were a number of apocalyptic cults among the Jews, some violent, each proclaiming a terrible judgment that would come upon the oppressors. Jesus left this passion for dominance behind to focus on mercy and love. He taught that fulfillment and peace comes from accepting the other instead of using him as a scapegoat for one's frustrations. Jesus directed his follower's attention to their own motivations for their actions and pointed to how often the performance of a good deed is connected to a concern for status. He championed intent over result, your approach to the world instead of recognition from the masses. But you know the story.

So, what happened? Solitude happened. No one knows if he really went into the desert or for how long he stayed. But one thing is for sure, and if you don't believe in him having a divine (as in different) nature, and I don't, then someone doesn't think like that by keeping up with popular opinion and consulting with their peers about correct behavior and social norms. Nor does it come from an always jabbering interior monologue that spits out propositions as if there was a proof to be made. There is nothing to think about or on. It isn't a conclusion, it's a response. It comes from inner quiet.

Remember that what we know about Jesus is slight. He probably did cause a ruckus of some sort at the temple but we don't know too many more details of his life outside of the testimony of scripture. That's why I point to the Gospel of Thomas. Somebody did go around the desert of Palestine and say those things. Involved argument with the Pharisees on Judaic law? Eh, who knows. Carpenter? Maybe not, there isn't a lot of wood in Palestine. If you want to conceive of him as a builder then working with mud and rock is more likely than wood. Evidence for the miracles is non-existent and I find it strange that an atheist would even mention them if you don't want to hear about his divine nature.

If your idea of transformation is about personal effectiveness and super productivity Tony Robbins or Zig Ziglar, might be a more effective means for you to tap into your 'desert strength'.

Disclaimer: I was a student of religion and early Christianity in college. That was a number of years ago. There isn't too much historical information up above and what there is, I believe is accurate. But I ain't betting my thumbs on it.
posted by BigSky at 6:17 AM on June 13, 2007 [6 favorites]

Myth is powerful, transforming magic to those who believe, and it doesn't need to be factually true. But I suppose this story may have a factual kernel.

Have you ever spent any time in the desert? If you leave your iPod/Gameboy/TV/etc behind and just sit there with yourself amazing things can happen. At least three major world religions have origins connected to the desert: Moses in the wilderness, Jesus in the desert, and Muhammad in the cave. Maybe it was just sensory deprivation and malnutrition, etc., but I've never been happy with a completely reductionist view of religion. It seems you already have a set of assumptions in place that will restrict your ability to experience (and understand) whatever-it-is-that-happens-in-the-desert. But many people seem to have had this experience without leaving town.

Try reading a couple of books by John Shelby Spong: Liberating the Gospels and Resurrection for a scholarly but accessible treatment of the Christian mythos. I found both these books very helpful in learning how Christianity began and how to read the Bible without jettisoning my reason.
posted by RussHy at 6:26 AM on June 13, 2007

Mod note: a few comments removed; take hollerin' about the literature elsewhere, please
posted by cortex (staff) at 6:26 AM on June 13, 2007

He wasnt an uneducated carpenter. He was literate and knew the torah. he was most likely a rabbi. Also, you cannot treat these books as historical records. They are evangelical fables written decades after the death of anyone who knew Jesus personally.

Is there a way that normal guys like you and me can tap into this same desert strength?

No. But if you do start some movement expect your followers to remember you as being far more important, interesting, and relevant than you truly are.
posted by damn dirty ape at 6:47 AM on June 13, 2007

As others have pointed out, the withdrawal to the wilderness doesn't have to be the time in which the totality of the transformation took place. In Zen, the was a supposed split between schools of sudden and gradual enlightenment. Yet even the former would posit koans for the students to wrestle with long and hard. When the change comes it seems sudden, but is also the culmination of a long process.
Jesus' time in the desert can be seen in that light: he felt the forces in his life coming to a crisis point and went out to meet them, head on and alone. If you can do the same in your life, you might touch the same ancient truths.
posted by Abiezer at 6:48 AM on June 13, 2007 [1 favorite]

From a historical standpoint, it's believed that Jesus had more direct contact with the Essenes sect of Judaism, which is accredited with writing/hiding the Dead Sea Scrolls. The passage where Christ sat at the temple steps as an adolescent, while speaking with priests and scholars hints at early knowledge/exposure with Essene sympathizers, or those who knew of the group.

As the Essenes harbored political beliefs that were sharply critical of the Roman Empire, the majority of the sect had lived in exile in the desert. Some theologians believe the Essenes had forged a covenant with God, for the sake of protecting part of Jewish belief/heritage, and Jesus' meeting with them affirmed God's promise to ensure the preservation of faith, while in turn guiding Jesus in moral context of the mortal ways/weaknesses of mankind.

This is not to say they tempted him, as Satan had. Rather they offered him their perspectives on mankind's failings as an analogy for Rome's presence, and the effects it had on civilization. Part of Christ's responsibility on Earth, after all, was to see and experience the world through mortal eyes - to fully appreciate persecution,it was fitting for him to meet with a culture whose right to expression was being suppressed.
posted by Smart Dalek at 6:53 AM on June 13, 2007 [1 favorite]

Start by backing off the number 40 as a literal length of time. One Islamic note about 40:
Number 40 occurs in the Qur'an and Sunnah in many places. It is an important number to indicate change from one state to another. According to some Ahadith, the fetus in the womb of his mother changes from one state to another every forty days. Prophet Musa -peace be upon him- was asked by Allah to spend forty nights at mount Sinai (al-Baqarah 2:51). Bani Israil were kept wandering in the wilderness of Sinai for forty years (al-Ma'idah 5:26). Prophet Isa -peace be upon him- is reported to have fasted forty days before he became the prophet. Prophet Muhammad -peace be upon him- was honored by Allah with Nubuwwah at the age of forty. And there are many other important events in history associated with the number 40.
If you go to everyone's favorite fact source, Wikipedia, you'll see a list of religious uses of the number 40:
* "Forty days and forty nights" describes the period for which rain fell during Noah's flood
* "Forty days" was the length of the period that the twelve spies explored the Promised Land (Numbers 13)
* "Forty years" was the length of Israel's wandering in the wilderness. This period of years represents a generation, that is, the time it takes for a new generation to arise. [...]
People writing in archaic-poetic-prophetic language about a fellow named Jesus who spent some time in the desert and came back with big ideas almost had to say he spent a life-changing "forty days" there.

And "fasting" is just another traditional requirement for writing about people thinking big thoughts alone, people too preoccupied with spiritual things to care for their bodily needs. You couldn't just say Jesus came up with his new system while munching on the tasty cheese snacks his mother had packed for him. Probably Jesus didn't eat nothing, but instead never quite satisfied his hunger or thirst, as would happen when you're miles from the nearest good restaurant with nothing but what's in your pack. Or locusts.

So now it's not necessarily such a long time and he's not necessarily very hungry. He may be just, as people nowadays might say it, getting away from it all for a few days.

What happened to him while on a low-calorie diet out in the country for the long weekend probably was just that he had time to think about all the things he had already been thinking, time to formulate things, to step back and get things in order, concoct catchy slogans for the coming campaign, and work out the bugs (unlike John the Baptist, who ate them). He had his doubts there for a while but he overcame them.

It could have been all very normal. He probably came back a bit dirty and stinky but down to his fighting weight and feeling quite chuffed with himself and ready to head for the nearest bathhouse and diner with the guys to tell them all about the new plan.
posted by pracowity at 7:05 AM on June 13, 2007 [2 favorites]

your knowledge of the worldview of second temple jewish peasantry, and Christ in particular, seems rife with anachronism (for example, the idea that Christ was "uneducated") and thus woefully inadequate to serve your inquiry. historian and new testament scholar N.T. Wright has produced a series in three large volumes which will shed much light on these matters for you, i cannot recommend them highly enough: Christian Origins and the Question of God

Vol One: The New Testament and the People of God

Vol Two: Jesus and the Victory of God

Vol Three: The Resurrection of the Son of God

someone once recommended them in a previous askme thread to a third party who was investigating Christ and i went out and bought them. i'm still working my way through them. they aren't light reading. in the time i've invested in them i've become clear that attempting to answer questions such as yours from the cultural perspective of our 21st century vague common knowledge of the period is, if not futile, certainly inclined toward erroneous and frustrating conclusions.
posted by quonsar at 7:43 AM on June 13, 2007 [4 favorites]

I found myself in the same position yesterday, agreeing wholeheartedly with chuckdarwin way down-thread. But chuckdarwin has it.

Knowledge gained from difficult solitude is a major mythical note. As referenced several times above, most of our religious icons have emerged from the lonely wilderness with world-shaking knowledge. Odin hung from the world tree Yggdrasill for nine days, stabbed with a javelin. (hanging, stuck with a spear, sound familiar?) When he came down, he did so with the knowledge to become king of the gods.

In our most well-known modern myth, Star Wars, this concept is briefly touched upon. In Empire Strikes Back, Yoda sends Luke into the cave on Dagobah alone. Like an old prophet, Luke receives a revelation in that cave, though it is not as complete as, say, Buddha's.

According to mythology, if it's worth learning then it's worth learning in a cave of hanging off of wood with a stab wound of some kind.
posted by EatTheWeek at 7:56 AM on June 13, 2007

in a cave of hanging off of wood

should read

in a cave OR hanging off of wood

posted by EatTheWeek at 7:58 AM on June 13, 2007

Many of the classic Semitic life-death-rebirth incarnate gods went through a period of wanderning at the outset of the mature mythic phase of their life story and also seem to undergo a version of passion/doubt before their death. Osiris, Adonis, Baal Hadad, Tammuz, Attis, Dionysus, and so on. It makes good copy.
posted by meehawl at 8:18 AM on June 13, 2007

well I'm responding as a "born-again" Christian type, but I would say that he was reacting to the exercising of his faith with God affirming his divinity after the temptation of the Devil... though as a argument I would say you really can't approach the Bible as a parable and still cling to a literal translation without acknowledging the literal transliation of the Text. Otherwise you will probably understand the text in a different viewpoint that mine (figurative/parable, etc) and will have much more freedom to interpret that I.... but I am the son of a Baptist Preacher so go figure ;)
posted by aggienfo at 8:41 AM on June 13, 2007

Is there a way that normal guys like you and me can tap into this same desert strength? Are there other famous examples of such sudden transformations from a nobody to someone great?

You don't really need the desert and 40 days, any more than a Buddhist needs 49 days and a bodhi tree. Whether it's called meditation, prayer, contemplation, spirit quest, or whatever, nearly all religions have functionally-similar traditions/practices by which the individual can transform her- or himself by spending time alone learning how to focus, clear, or calm the mind; contemplating important concepts or issues; or working to change perceived negative or destructive mental or emotional habits.
posted by aught at 9:13 AM on June 13, 2007 [1 favorite]

On the off chance that this was a serious question and not a variant of you-know-i'm-right, you may be interested in the Desert Fathers, early Christians who lived, uh, in the deserts.

From the Sayings of the Desert Fathers, here's a "normal guy" asking another "normal guy" for guidance:

Abba Lot came to Abba Joseph and said: "Father, as I am able, I keep my little rule, and my little fast, my prayer, meditation, and contemplative silence; and according as I am able, I strive to cleanse my heart of thoughts: now, what more should I do?"

The elder rose up in reply and stretched out his hands to heaven, and his fingers became like ten lamps of fire. He said: "Why not be totally changed into fire?"

posted by thehmsbeagle at 10:00 AM on June 13, 2007 [2 favorites]

Articulate and passionate believers often start attracting crowds of followers. Maybe you would find it useful to look at the life of George Fox for parallels. A poor shoemaker and shepherd wanders the country, forms certain beliefs, acts on them and suddenly begins to acquire followers.
posted by dilettante at 10:03 AM on June 13, 2007

Also wanted to add to the "starting from Jesus was an uneducated man" bit. Even if you don't believe in Jesus as the Savior or Messiah or that the Bible is 100% true, going strictly going from the Bible, there is an account in the book of Luke (and throughout accounts of his life in the Gospel) that he was very familiar with the holy texts and interpreting them (or "philosophizing," what have you).

There's the famous account of 12-year-old Jesus staying behind in Jerusalem after he and his parents visit the city for Passover. When his parents realize that he's missing after having returned home, they return to Jerusalem to look for him and find him in the temple astounding the teachers and discussing with them intelligently. (Luke 2:41-52). Note: This passage also being famous for the "was Jesus being a bratty kid or was he aware of who he was from a young age" retort to Mary of "Why were you looking for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father's house?"

Even in the verse before it, Luke writes "The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favor of God was upon him" (2:40). And it is reiterated in verse 52 that "...Jesus advanced in wisdom and age and favor before God and man."

So who knows, maybe he went into the desert to formulate all of his philosphy or come up with a lesson plan based on stuff he already knew or maybe he just got over his awkward shy smart guy stage and became the outspoken speaker. But yea, if you're strictly going from the Biblical accounts, Jesus is described as having a good head on him for discussing religion. There were people called him rabbi throughout his life and he weaves in many things that are from the Old Testament/Torah into his teachings which hints at a pretty encyclopedic knowledge of the stuff as well as being able to use it eloquently.
posted by kkokkodalk at 1:02 PM on June 13, 2007

well, for one thing, he fasted. whether the number 40 is metaphorical in this case or not, it's a popular one among a number of traditions, and people still do it. it's absolutely possible without divine intervention, and it's definitely intense. fasting that long is almost guaranteed to produce hallucination or other changes in consciousness-- so yeah, you could try that, and see where it gets you. adding solitude/wilderness/no distractions to the equation would almost certainly make it even more challenging and intense. (i can't remember if it claims this in the bible, but going without water for 40 days, especially in the desert, seems much less possible for most people)

and yeah, i think there are a variety of similar stories. it's been mentioned above, but buddha meditated (and fasted?) under a tree for seven weeks and ended up enlightened.
posted by lgyre at 1:57 PM on June 13, 2007

I've seen the "go away, live in isolation for a bit, and come back enlightened" pattern in a bunch of places.

Excuse my briefness, but you may want to examine the Native American Spiritual Quests and Thoreau as someone else mentioned.

Also, I believe there was quite a substantial bit in Robert Pirsig's "Zen and The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance" about this - experiencing Quality in a higher/purer way, and whatnot. That book, if you're not already familiar with it, may prove interesting.
posted by bkudria at 8:08 PM on June 14, 2007

One thing missing in this discussion is the historical importance of Saul of Tarsus (St Paul). Jesus of Nazareth, historically, organized a rather small religious sect. His following, during his lifetime, never amounted to more than a few hundred, and that is a generous number. Charismatic leaders, with little training, can build sects of this size.

Christianity, as we know it today, is more due to the efforts of Saul of Tarsus. He is the organizer, the builder, the social leader. A Roman citizen, studied law and politics with leading rabbis, and educated and trained leader. After his conversion to Christianity, he sets out across the Roman Empire spreading the word. Writes letters to the communities keeping them all organized. Saul of Tarsus built the Christian church.
posted by Flood at 10:40 PM on June 15, 2007 [1 favorite]

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