Death’s Sting

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Image copyright DC Comics

 

A long time friend of mine died suddenly a couple of days ago. Tom was in his comic shop, putting together orders, and, it appears, suffered a heart attack. He died there alone.

Death still has its sting – for both those who die (which is all of us) and those who are left behind. Paul’s rhetorical question, ‘Oh death, where is thy sting?’ (1 Corinthians 15:55) has always seemed to me to be particularly fatuous, not to mention deceitful. He said it, of course, in the belief that faith in his Christ meant life would resume on the other side of the grave. Even if this were so, dying would not be without its pain, and grieving not without deep sorrow.

And what about that word ‘sting’? The Greek Paul uses, ‘κέντρον’, means ‘a sharp point’ as if death is nothing more than a pin prick, a short sharp shock no more troublesome than an injection. In my experience, spending time with people who are dying, it is far from that. The body’s shutdown is often slow, relentless and unbearable. Morphine helps, not Jesus.

Mourning too is persistent; an emptiness and a profound sense of loss, as we often acknowledge when offering condolences. I takes time to subside, but never truly disappears. Every death, especially of loved ones, depletes us. As John Donne puts it:

Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.

God Nature, whose product we are, is insensible and indifferent to our suffering. It neither knows nor cares that we are self-aware, emotional beings who grieve and suffer. Death, which troubles us so much, is one of the engines of evolution. Once we have passed the stage at which we might viably reproduce we are programmed to decline and  die. We must make way for new creations, which is not, despite what Christians claim, in a brand new body on a new earth or in heaven. The new creations are those who follow us. Paul, as he was in so many respects, is wrong to say that because of the futile hope of resurrection, death has lost its sting and the grave its victory. Death will never lose its sting, its pain and finality.

Tom will be remembered by those to whom he mattered in life. This is the best we can do; this and living our lives to the full while we’re still here, loving others and being kind.

Farewell Tom, my friend.

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Why Jesus can’t possibly have known he’d ‘rise from the dead’.

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I said at the start of this series of posts about the date of Jesus’ crucifixion that the gospel writers perhaps felt unable to exclude Jesus’ predictions about rising from the grave after three days because these were too well-known. On reflection, it seems more likely that Jesus didn’t make any such prophecies. It is more probable that the gospel writers introduced them into their stories about him decades later.

I’ve written before about how the Resurrection appearances were nothing more than visions and dreams. Paul’s experience of the risen Jesus most certainly was – he says so himself – and Mary’s encounter with angels, telling her Jesus was no longer in his tomb, is described as ‘a vision’ in Luke 24.23. The subsequent accounts of Jesus’ post-mortem appearances also bear all the hallmarks of hallucinations; he disappears at will; passes through closed doors; isn’t always recognisable, drifts up into the sky and so on.

These mystical experiences, those that really happened anyway (it’s safe to say some – the Emmaus story, for example – are complete inventions: see Alter, pp536-8) quickly became a conviction among Jesus’ early followers that he had somehow risen from the grave. By the time of Luke’s and John’s gospel, 50 to 70 years later, this idea had evolved into a full-blown bodily resurrection.

The question is, did Jesus know that this was what was going to happen? Could he have had foreknowledge that he would be seen again after his death? Could he, during his life, have predicted he would rise bodily from the grave?

Christians will tell you that as God or God’s Son, Jesus was omniscient and therefore of course he knew these things in advance. There are, however, several good reasons why we can be sure he didn’t:

  • According to Paul, it was the resurrection that elevated Jesus to his god-like status, not his divinity that enabled the resurrection. Christians who argue that Jesus rose from the dead because he was divine have it back to front. Paul says clearly that Jesus ‘was appointed the Son of God in power by his resurrection from the dead‘ (Romans 1.4; my italics). Without the resurrection, Jesus was, Paul argues, of no great significance (1 Corinthians 12.15-19). However, the only ‘evidence’ for the resurrection is the contradictory, incompatible accounts offered by only three of the gospel writers and by Paul himself. So implausible is this evidence that we can safely conclude, with Michael J. Alter, that there was no such event. How, then, could Jesus possibly ‘know’ he’d rise from the dead when in fact he didn’t?
  • While he suffered from the delusion that he was going to rule God’s imminent Kingdom, it is unlikely Jesus thought he would have to die and be resurrected in order to do so. There was nothing in the Jewish scriptures to suggest either the Son of Man (a figure from Daniel with whom Jesus appears to have claimed some affinity) or the Messiah would be put to death only to rise again. This wasn’t what these characters were about and it wouldn’t have been how Jesus thought.
  • The Kingdom of God did not come about in the way Jesus believed. His death therefore did not bring about the apocalypse, judgement and rule of God he predicted and anticipated. In fact, his death took his cult off in a completely different direction, thanks mainly to Paul’s intervention. Jesus, and to a significant degree, the synoptic writers appear to have little awareness of this seismic shift. The Jesus they portray has little cognisance of events following his demise. Any suggestion he foresaw the creation of the Church is anachronistic, written back retrospectively into the accounts of his life. This was not what his ‘good news’ was about.

  • From their reactions preserved in the gospels, Jesus’ execution evidently came as a shock to both himself and his followers. None of them appear to have been expecting anything like a resurrection. Immediately following his death and burial, not a single one of his followers recalled his supposed predictions of his resurrection, nor did they express the sure and certain hope he would be returning. Even the discovery of the empty tomb (if it happened at all) failed to elicit such an expectation, nor any recollection of his words. The gospels say all those who witnessed the empty tomb were ‘frightened’, ‘astonished’ or ‘amazed’ that the body was missing, but not that they believed he must have risen from the dead. All those who witnessed the empty tomb behaved as if they’d never heard Jesus’ predictions that he’d be returning – probably because they hadn’t

  • It wasn’t until the ‘visions’ started that some of them began to consider the possibility that Jesus had ‘risen’. Not all were convinced, however. Matthew 28.16 notes how a number ‘doubted’ that the apparition they were seeing was Jesus. Significantly, at no point do any of those who think they’re seeing the risen Jesus say, ‘I remember him predicting this would happen.’ On every occasion, either angels or the risen Jesus himself has to explain it to them. (Of course, it’s the gospel writers doing the explaining for those hearing these stories decades later.)

All of this points to the fact that, while he was alive, Jesus didn’t make any predictions about rising from the grave on the third day, after three days, or after three days and nights; these prophecies, incompatible with each other and with the synoptic timeline, were created later, probably much later, after belief in the resurrection had become a central plank – the central plank – of the new cult. They were subsequently written back into the gospels, and placed on Jesus’ lips on the basis to show that of course he knew he’d rise again and knowing would have spoken about it.

The circle was thus complete; his early followers created the myth of Jesus’ return while later ones invented the ‘prophecies’ to bolster the belief that Jesus must have known he would. He said so, didn’t he?

Jesus’ dates with destiny

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I hope you’ll allow me a little speculation…

Here are the few days leading up to Jesus supposed resurrection as related by the synoptic gospels:

Nisan 15: Wednesday sunset to Thursday sunset. The Day of Preparation when thousands of Paschal lambs are slaughtered ready for the following day’s (i.e. Thursday evening’s) Passover. Jesus instructs his disciples on the arrangements he has made for the feast.

Nisan 16: a. Thursday evening: Jesus celebrates Passover.

b. Thursday evening and night: Jesus is arrested and tried.

c. Friday 9.00: Jesus is put to the cross

d. Friday 15.00: Jesus dies.

Nisan 17: a. Friday ‘evening’: The start of the Sabbath: Jesus is buried by Joseph of Arimathea.

b. Friday evening to Saturday sunset: Jesus body lies in the sealed tomb.

Nisan 18: Saturday sunset to ‘early’ Sunday: The body remains in the tomb overnight(?) but by early next morning is missing.

John’s timeline, however, is markedly different. He says that Jesus is arrested on the Day of Preparation for Passover – that’s Nisan 15 according to the synoptics, which started at sunset on Wednesday (John 13.1; 19.14.) In John, therefore, Jesus does not eat a Passover meal with his disciples. He shares an ordinary supper with them on the Wednesday evening, when he washes their feet. Judas slips out to inform on him just as he does in the synoptic gospels, a day later (Mark 14.16-17; Matthew 26.19-20; Luke 22.33-45.) John significantly alters the timing of events though he retains Judas leaving, though from a different meal. In the fourth gospel, Jesus is arrested on the Wednesday evening, the start of Nisan 15. John mentions in 18.28 that the temple officials involved in the arrest have yet to eat their Passover meal; it still awaits on Thursday evening.

In John, Jesus is tried during the night of Nisan 15, or the early hours of Thursday. Eventually, at around noon on the Thursday he is nailed to the cross and dies rapidly (John 19.14, 31, 42). By the time everyone else is eating the Passover meal later that day – a meal Jesus is present for in the synoptic gospels – John’s Jesus is well and truly dead. He is placed in Joseph of Arimathea’s tomb at some point Thursday evening, either the end of Nisan 15 or the start of Nisan 16. He remains there during Friday and Saturday (the Sabbath) but by Sunday morning his body, according to the story, is missing.

It has been argued – given we don’t know the year Jesus was crucified – that John has his Passover falling on the Saturday, the Sabbath (John 19.31), as happened on occasion, and that therefore John’s ‘Day of Passover Preparation’ was not the Thursday – as it is in the synoptics – but the Friday. According to this line of reasoning, Jesus’ arrest in John was also on Thursday evening, at the start of Nisan 16 and his crucifixion was on Friday, as in the synoptic gospels. But the Day of Passover Preparation cannot be freely moved around to accommodate both versions of events; either it was on the Thursday (Nisan 15) as the synoptics record, or it was on the Friday (Nisan 16) as those who seek to locate John’s crucifixion on Friday argue. Either John is wrong about when the Day of Passover Preparation fell or his Jesus was crucified a day earlier than in the synoptics on their Day of Preparation, Nisan 15.

There is further circumstantial evidence for John’s crucifixion being on the Thursday. While the synoptics have the chief priests, scribes and elders witnessing the crucifixion for themselves, John doesn’t mention their presence. In his Thursday scenario, they are too busy preparing for that evening’s Passover, overseeing the ritual slaughter of thousand of animals, to attend the crucifixion. Similarly, the various activities after Jesus dies – the buying of linen and spices, the removal of the body from the cross, the preparation for burial, sundry visits to Pilate and the posting of guards (though John does not report the latter.) – do not entail any infringement of the Sabbath regulations.

Moreover, John has Jesus in the tomb for three days and nights, more or less; the supposed resurrection does indeed occur ‘after three days’ as Jesus is made to predict numerous times (19 in total.)

Nisan 16: Jesus is buried at the start of Nisan 16 (our Thursday evening),

Nisan 17: Jesus remains in the tomb throughout Nisan 17; 6pm Friday to 6pm Saturday.

Nisan 18: 6pm Saturday to the early hours of our Sunday. He remains in the tomb until some indeterminate point, either before dawn (according to John) or just after (the synoptics.)

As well as a resurrection ‘on the third day’, John’s version of events provides an added bonus. By having his crucifixion on the Day of Passover Preparation, John  is able to draw an analogy between the slaughter of the sacrificial lambs and his ‘Lamb of God’ who, in his death, replaces them as an atonement offering.

I don’t know; maybe I’ve got this all wrong. There’s a problem, I concede, with John 19.30 which implies Jesus is on the cross on Friday (though by John 19.42, when Jesus is buried, it looks like the narrative has reverted to the day before the Sabbath; Friday day time.)

The effort to harmonise the two different timelines, that of the synoptics and that of John, involves having two different Days of Passover Preparation (Thursday and Friday) and indeed, two Passovers (Friday and Saturday). Does this seem likely to you? Two lots of lambs to be slaughtered and two celebrations on two consecutive days – I mean, these people weren’t made of money! Isn’t it far more likely there was one Day of Preparation and one Passover? If so, who is right about when they fell? John or the synoptic writers? They both can’t be. Whether apologists like it or not, isn’t it more likely that the fourth gospel has Jesus crucified on the same Day of Preparation that the synoptics mention (the Thursday), while in the synoptics – all based, let’s remember, on Mark’s account – he dies on the Friday after the Passover meal as they relate? It makes more sense of the conflicting timelines than attempting to mash them both together when they won’t. One or other, John or the synoptics, got it wrong about the day Jesus died; perhaps both did.

One thing’s for sure, what follows is pure unadulterated myth.

On what day did Jesus die?

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I’ve been ‘discussing’ with a commenter on Gary Matson’s Escaping Christian Fundamentalism blog the incongruities between the synoptic gospels and John’s gospel in their accounts of the crucifixion. Specifically, the day on which it took place. While tradition has it on a Friday, it has long been debated whether this is the case; see Michael J. Alter’s The Resurrection: A Critical Enquiry for an excellent overview.

Scholarly consensus is, it has to be said, that Jesus did indeed die on a Friday. However, as discussed last time, one of the many problems surrounding the date of the crucifixion is that we don’t know the year in which it happened. We don’t therefore know the precise time of the Passover that the gospels say occurred around the time of the crucifixion. If we presume that it was during the month of Nisan in AD 33 (again, refer to Alter), then the monthly Passover was on the Thursday. The problem is, we do not know if Jesus died in AD33, or even in the month of Nisan. If the end of his life was in some other year or month (and there are good reasons for thinking it may have been), then the Passover would, in all probability, have fallen on a different day.

A Friday crucifixion creates significant problems. The first is that the synoptic gospels tell us that Jesus’ body was placed in the tomb ‘in the evening’. The evening of Friday (our time) is, and was, the start of the Sabbath, which would have prohibited any activity, including those the synoptic gospels tell us took place during the evening that followed Jesus’ death. These include Mary Magdalene, who apparently could find a shop open on the Sabbath, buying and preparing spices to anoint Jesus’ corpse and Joseph of Arimathea purchasing linen in which to wrap it. It also involves Joseph visiting Pilate to persuade him to release the body and then taking it down from the cross himself. All of these activities qualified as work and were strictly forbidden.

How to get round the problem? The apologist on Escaping Chrsitian Fundamentalism  has been making the case that ‘evening’ in first century Palestine was between 3pm, when Jesus died, and 6pm or thereabouts, when the sun set and the Sabbath began. There is some evidence this period was indeed known as ‘early’ evening. However, the word used for ‘evening’ in the gospels – ὀψίας – always signifies ‘late’ evening (Alter, p98). My apologist, however, argues that people in first century Palestine went to bed early, once the light began to fade (even though the gospels themselves suggest otherwise), so when the gospel writers refer to ‘the evening’ they must actually be referring to ‘late afternoon’.

The second, and to my mind more significant, problem is that a Friday burial, even if before the Sabbath began, means that Jesus was in the tomb for, at most, thirty-six hours; Friday evening to (before) dawn on Sunday when Mary Magdalene and the other women visited the tomb and decided he had risen. Thirty-six hours is only half of the ‘three days and three nights’ Jesus is made to predict he would be buried (Matthew 12.40). The writers of the gospels must surely have known this, and yet they all choose to maintain Jesus’ prediction in one form or another. Perhaps it was too well known to exclude. Or perhaps Jesus wasn’t executed and buried on a Friday.

I have been arguing with my apologist that John’s gospel addresses these two problems by locating the crucifixion a day earlier, on the Thursday, and also by having Jesus die long before 3pm. While the synoptics all say (copying from Mark) that he was put on the cross at 9am and died six hours later, John suggests that the crucifixion took place at around noon and that Jesus died quickly. John’s alternative scenario gives those involved in the burial time to prepare for it (a problem in the synotics) and allows the interment to take place in the evening proper, late Thursday evening not being part of the Sabbath. It also grants a period much closer to the prophesied three days and nights for Jesus to remain in the tomb.

Most scholars, however, agree that all four gospels record the crucifixion as taking place on a Friday. So what is my evidence that John’s gospel suggests otherwise? I’m glad you asked…

How to work out when Jesus died

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When did Jesus die? The year, I mean.

The honest answer is we don’t know. In Michael J. Alter’s The Resurrection: A Critical Enquiry, recommended by John Loftus’s Debunking Christianity blog-site, the author considers twelve different dates that have been proposed, together with the reasons why. Ultimately though, we don’t know.

Which is strange, not only because, as Alter points out, Jesus’ death and resurrection are supposedly the most significant events ever to have happened in the entire history of the world, but because it should be really easy to pinpoint the date. It was the year there was –

  • a total eclipse of the sun that, for over three hours, plunged the whole land (some translations have ‘earth’) into darkness,
  • an earthquake that caused appreciable damage, 
  • the tearing from top to bottom of the four inch thick, 82 feet high curtain in the temple,
  • the dead rising from their graves to make themselves known to the inhabitants of Jerusalem (including, presumably, the extensive Roman presence.)

We know this because the gospels tell us so; these events all took place either just before (Luke) or just after (Matthew) Jesus’ death. Let’s overlook the fact that solar eclipses don’t ever occur at the point of a full moon, while Passover, when Jesus died, happens only when there is one, and take a look at Matthew’s version of events:

From noon on, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon. And about three o’clock Jesus cried with a loud voice… and breathed his last. At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. The earth shook, and the rocks were split. The tombs also were opened, and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised. After his resurrection they came out of the tombs and entered the holy city and appeared to many. (Matthew 27.45, 46, 51-53)

All we need to do, therefore, is look for corroboration of these four cataclysmic events occurring together in the records of the time. (The Romans were particularly good at recording such things; we know, for example, there was an eclipse in AD29, though that lasted a measly 2 minutes.) Once we’ve found this corroborative evidence, we’ll know for certain the year in which Jesus died.

But you’re ahead of me: there is no record anywhere, apart from the gospels, of these events ever taking place, certainly not in combination. No record of a widespread darkness, nor of an accompanying earthquake nor of the temple veil tearing from top to bottom, nor of the dead emerging from their tombs. Which isn’t to say they didn’t happen, but you’d think someone, somewhere would have noticed and would have written about them. Josephus maybe, or Plutarch, Greek or Roman authorities, or even Paul; anyone writing at the time or soon after; any of those whose history of the period has survived.

But no.

It’s enough to make you think these earth-shattering events didn’t really happen; that they’re all made up for theological reasons.

And you’d be right.

How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?

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Back when I was a teacher, in a distant, previous life, there were kids who couldn’t grasp the concept that multiplying a number by zero always results in zero. No matter how often I told them, ‘it doesn’t matter how much nothing you have, it’s still nothing,’ some of them just couldn’t see it.

Those who did understand regarded it as almost magical – they were young children – and would challenge each other with the likes of, ‘What’s 47 trillion, 56 billion, 95 million, 34 thousand, 8 hundred and 22 multiplied by zero?… Zero!’

I imagine these smart kids now say things like, ‘What’s Superstition mutiplied by New Testament scholarship, theology and the intellectualised analysis of doctrine?… Superstition!’

It is immaterial how rigorous the scrutiny of the non-existent is, the non-existent will only ever be non-existent.

No matter how much nothing you have, it’s still nothing.

Give me some of that ol’… New Testament scholarship?

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Roger E. Olson has deigned to reply to me! He says that every fule know there are multiple Jesuses in the New Testament. All the same, Rog is sure he has a pretty clear picture of the real one, even if this is only in his own head. Then I hit the jackpot! Rog treats me to one of the Christian apologist’s top retorts: those with dissenting views know nothing about New Testament scholarship.

Here’s his response in all its glory:

I hear your suggestion, but I’m not sure what it has to do with atheism. All serious New Testament scholars–including the most conservative Christian ones–already know and admit that the gospel portraits of Jesus differ somewhat from each other. But very early in Christian history all attempts to reduce them to one portrait (one united gospel stitched together from the four in our New Testament) were rejected as heretical. We Christians already know what you say and it doesn’t bother us. I have read numerous biographies of Abraham Lincoln, for example, and the “man himself” stands out in spite of differences of description from different points of view. Your point is simplistic and displays that you know little or nothing about New Testament scholarship.

My reply to this, which Roger hasn’t seen fit to post:

So you think one has to be fully cognizant with New Testament scholarship to be a Christian? Funny, I don’t find any of the Jesuses in the bible saying that. Doesn’t one of them suggest we ‘become as little children’? Still, I expect you’re right: if you need a level of understanding that’s the equivalent of a doctorate to follow Jesus, then I guess I don’t qualify.

As for what my comment has to do with atheism, you were the one who said we see God most clearly in Jesus. I responded by saying I don’t see God in any of the interpretations. If Jesus is the best reflection we have of God, as you suggest, then his failed prophecies, false promises and general ignorance make it probable that the God he, and you, promote doesn’t exist.

If you can cherry-pick which bits of the bible are relevant to your understanding of the divine, Roger (you dismiss, for example, the barbarity of the Old Testament), then it is not unreasonable for others to do the same, even if we aren’t as well versed in Christian mumbo-jumbo theology as you.