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 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.

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God is revealed in Jesus… or not

 

Blog335CompositeOn his blog-site, humbly named after himself, Roger E. Olson trots out the tired old cliche that there’s no such thing as atheism. Atheists, Rog tells us, know in their hearts that God exists, they just choose to ignore him. As a result, Rog has little time for atheism. (I discovered Roger’s wonderfully smug site through Bruce Gerenscer’s excellent one.)

Rog says that if we want to see what this heart-implanted God looks like, then we shouldn’t look to the Old Testament and the tribal warlord we find there – goodness me, no; we can safely discard him! That God just doesn’t match up to our twenty-first century sensibilities. No, if we want to see God then what we must do is look at Jesus, for in Jesus we see what God is really like.

Oops! We’re right back at the problem I’ve been discussing these last few posts: just which Jesus are we talking about? There are so many. There’s the Jesus of the synoptic gospels (though he’s neither consistent nor pleasant), who is nothing like the self-obsessed Jesus of John’s gospel. Paul’s Christ is different again; he’s a complete invention, much like the Jesus of Hebrews who has morphed into a Jewish High Priest. The Jesus of Revelation meanwhile is an Evil Mutant straight out of the Marvel Universe, what with swords coming out of his mouth and all. So which Jesus has Rog got in mind? I think we should be told.

There are so many discrepancies in the various interpretations of Jesus in the New Testament, that it’s hard to see a clear, consistent picture of anything, let alone God, in such a shifting kaleidoscope of images. I’ve recommend that Rog should take atheism a little more seriously; the often incompatible Jesuses of the bible don’t reveal ‘the true nature of God’ anywhere as clearly as he claims. I’d go further: none of them show – can possibly show – what the non-existent is ‘really’ like. What they reveal instead are ideas about a God and a saviour made entirely in the image of the men who tasked themselves with creating them.

Were the gospels ‘fact checked’ by those in the know?

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In a discussion I’ve been having with Don Camp on his blog-site, Biblical Musings, Don has been arguing that the Gospels are completely accurate because a) he wants to believe this and b) the Gospels ‘could have been fact checked by people living who had known Jesus and who had heard the Apostles teach this very story for many years. New and embellished versions would not have been acceptable to these people’ (my emphasis).

Clearly this is not so; John’s gospel presents a very different, highly embellished Jesus from that of the synoptic gospels (a divine being who is preoccupied with himself as opposed to a prophet concerned with ushering in God’s Kingdom), yet nowhere do we have any record of anyone saying, ‘hang on, one of these isn’t right – this isn’t how I remember things.’ Similarly, Paul’s itinerary (not to mention his theology) in Acts differs from that he talks about in his letters. Yet there’s no surviving evidence that anyone pulled Luke up about his inaccuracies.

If it didn’t happen, as far as we are aware, for these discrepancies, then why should we suppose it would have happened for others? It isn’t legitimate to hail the absence of ‘fact checking’ as evidence that everyone thought the gospel writers’ versions of Jesus’ life, despite multiple contradictions and evident embellishments, were reasonably accurate. This absence is not evidence that there was nothing to be disputed; it can be explained in numerous other, more likely ways (no-one was particularly interested in the discrepancies and embellishments because the gospels are literary creations, not historical accounts; the objections weren’t recorded or simply didn’t survive; they were quashed by orthodoxy and so on.)

Still Don insists ‘nobody in the know’ objected to anything in the gospels at the time they were written. This of course is mere conjecture on his part. We simply don’t know whether anyone objected, who did and who didn’t. Perhaps the disciples did object but were overruled (just as they were by Paul over other matters); maybe they objected to being portrayed as idiots, when their interpretation of what Jesus was about was being diminished, and nobody actually cared; maybe they didn’t mind the mythologising of their leader; maybe they never even saw the gospels, written as they were well away from Palestine and long after the events they portray; maybe most of the disciples were dead by the time the gospels were in circulation – life expectancy was short. Yes, I’m hypothesising here, just as Don does, my conjecture being every bit as valid as his.

Finally, Don refuses to see the errors, discrepancies and contradictions in the Gospels, as well as the mythologising of their central figure. Even with their inconsistencies, inaccuracies and flights of fancy (that may or may not have been objected to), Don maintains the Gospels are still ‘true’ and ‘inspired’. He really knows how to stretch a definition to the point of meaninglessness.

As if that’s not bad enough, he now he wants to pray for me.

In which the witnesses try to get their story straight

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Mary: Well, the other Mary and me (Matthew 28.1) were first to go down to the cave where somebody said they’d put the body overnight.

Salome: I was there too, don’t forget (Mark 16.1).

Mary: Were you? I don’t remember that.

Salome: Bloody was, I’m telling you. So were a bunch of others (Luke 24.10).

Mary: Anyway, we get there and the entrance stone has been rolled away (Mark 16.4).

Peter: Wait a minute… I thought you said that happened after you got there. I thought you said there was an earthquake nobody else could feel and an angel came and rolled away the stone in front of your very eyes (Matt 28.2).

Mary: Did I? Oh yes, that’s right. That’s what happened. And the guards fainted out of sheer fright (Matt 28.4)

Thomas: They did? You didn’t mention any guards the first time you told this story (Mark 16.4).

Mary: Didn’t I? I must’ve forgotten. Oh well. And there was this strange young man sitting inside the tomb (Mark 16.5).

Salome: There were two young men and they were standing outside (Luke 24.4).

Mary: Really? I saw only one and he was definitely inside.

Peter: It wasn’t a young man, it was an angel (Mark 28.5).

Mary: Angel? Oh yes, I suppose you’re right. It must have been an angel. And he said the Master wasn’t there, that he’d risen or something (Matt 28.7).

John: That’s funny, I don’t remember anyone being there at this point. I certainly don’t remember anybody speaking to us (John 20.4-5).

Mary: That’s strange, because the young man in the tomb definitely spoke to me.

Salome: And the two men outside the tomb spoke to me.

Peter: And the angel… don’t forget the angel.

Thomas: So what happened then?

Mary: We were so frightened, we just ran away.

Thomas: You ran away? And then what?

Mary: Nothing. We said nothing to anybody (Mark 16.8).

Thomas: You said nothing to anybody. Then how did Peter find out? ‘Cos the next thing he was running hell for leather to the garden to see this empty cave for himself.

Peter: Oh, she must’ve told me. Yes, that was it, she said something to me and some of the others (Luke 24.10).

Mary: Erm, yes, that’s right. I told Peter and he went to see the empty tomb.

Peter. Ran all the way on my own, I did (Luke 24.12).

John: No, you didn’t. I went with you. In fact I overtook you and got there first (John 20.3-6).

Peter: Did you? I don’t remember that. Are you sure you haven’t just added yourself in here?

John: So anyway, we ran to the tomb…

Peter: And we see that the body has gone. I’m telling you, we couldn’t work out what had happened (John 20.9).

John: Though the most logical explanation seemed to be that he’d risen from the dead. I mean nothing else made sense (John 20.8).

Mary: It’s a shame you didn’t see the young man/men/angel. They’d have spelt it out for you like they did for us.

John: Don’t worry, we’ll bring them into the story later and we’ll have two angels for good measure. (John 20.12).

Mary: So while I was waiting there alone…

Thomas: Wait, you were there alone? I thought you said you ran away with the other women (Mark 16.8)?

Mary: Erm, yes, that’s right, I did. I must’ve gone back later just to hang about (John 20.11) and suddenly I see this, like, apparition. At first, I thought it was the gardener…

Thomas: You mean you didn’t know who it was?

Mary: No, I didn’t, which I agree was a bit odd, but then I realised it must be him, the Master, I mean. Who else could it have been?

Thomas: Well, if it was anyone at all, I’d have thought it more likely it was the gardener than a body back from the dead.

Mary: I suppose, but it just felt like the Master to me. I so wanted to see him again.

Thomas: Did he have holes in his hands and a wound in his side (John 20.27)? Surely that would’ve told you it was him.

Mary: Erm, I can’t recall now. But anyway, it was him.

Thomas: How’d you know?

Mary: ‘Cos he spoke to me. He said, ‘Keep your hands off me, woman, because I’ve not yet, erm… ascended’ (John 20.17, 20).

Thomas: What did that mean? If he was back like you said then how come you couldn’t touch him?

Mary: Well, I don’t know, you’d have to ask him.

Thomas: And how we gonna do that, him being dead and all?

Mary: He’s not dead, I tell you, and you’re all just jealous ‘cos I did better than all of you. I saw him in person and he talked to me!

Peter: All of you, just stop a minute and listen. Can you hear it?

Thomas: No.

Peter: Can you feel it?

Mary: Yes, I can. I can sense his presence (Luke 24.36-37).

John: He’s here with us. He’s back. Hallelujah!

Mary: It’s as if he’s standing right in front of us, talking to us.

John: Yes, that’s exactly what it’s like. He’s here with us. I can feel him. He’s back from the dead, I’m sure of it (John 20.19).

Peter: Let’s tell people we’ve seen him. They’re bound to believe us. I mean, we don’t live in a superstitious first-century backwater for nothing.

Thomas: Jesus Christ! Next you’ll be trying to convince everyone that this cockamamy story is true.

How To Be Saved (Possibly)

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Personal righteousness, that’s how. Who says so? Not Paul, that’s for sure; he thinks you get right with God by accepting the salvation made possible by Jesus death (Romans 1.16-17). Jesus on the other hand thinks it’s by being righteous. More than this, he says God will treat you in exactly the same way you treat others. He makes this point repeatedly; what the believer will receive from God will be in direct proportion to what the believer does.

So, according to Jesus, if you want God’s forgiveness, you must first forgive those who have wronged you:

For if you forgive men their trespasses your heavenly Father also will forgive you; but if you do not forgive neither will your Father forgive your trespasses. (Matthew 6.14)

He applies this principle to other areas too. You want to experience God’s riches and blessings? Then first be generous yourself:

Give and it will be given to you; good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, put into your lap. For the measure you give will be the measure you get back. (Luke 6.38)

You want to avoid God’s judgement? Then don’t judge others:

Judge not that you be not judged. For with the judgement you pronounce you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get. (Matthew 7.1-2)

You want God to show you mercy? Then you must first show mercy yourself:

Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy. (Matthew 5.7)

You want God to show you compassion? Then be compassionate yourself:

The King will say to those at his right hand… I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me… Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord when did we see the hungry and feed thee or thirsty and give thee drink? And when did we see thee a stranger and welcome thee?… And the King will answer them, Truly I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me’. (Matthew 25.34-46)

Do Christians believe that the degree to which they demonstrate mercy and forgiveness to others is the degree to which God will demonstrate it towards them, both in this life and the next?

It’s not that Christians don’t help the needy. Clearly many do, as do some atheists, Jews, Muslims and all manner of others. No, the point is that Christians have lost sight of the fact that for Jesus such behaviour directly equates with righteousness, which in turn determines one’s ultimate fate. There really is no getting away from the correlation that Jesus is at pains to underscore, particularly in Matthew and Luke’s gospels. The only recourse seems to be to disregard it, which most Christians are content to do. They are much happier with the self-centred faith that Paul offers in Romans 5.17, ‘the free gift of righteousness’. This makes far fewer demands, carrying only the minimal expectation that one’s treatment of others has any bearing on one’s own well-being.

Except this isn’t how it works, not according to Jesus; God’s forgiveness, blessing, compassion and removal of judgement are entirely conditional. To Jesus, a ‘measure for measure’ arrangement is how one attains righteousness, which is not God-given, but is worked at in the practicalities of daily life, in relation to others.

I dared to suggest this recently on a Christian blog and was berated for making a ‘Satanic’ suggestion. Not me, but the one Christians say is the Son of God, God himself even. Evidently this doesn’t extend to knowing what he actually says, taking notice of it and doing something about it.

The Myth of Intellectual Faith

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Reading other sceptics’ blogs, I am struck by how often Christians dismiss what they say on the basis they’re not well read enough, or don’t appreciate the subtlety of the cognoscenti’s cerebral faith. ‘If you knew Faith as I do, if you’d read about it as much as I have,’ they say, ‘and approached it with the intellectual rigour I do, you wouldn’t make such juvenile criticisms of it.’

But isn’t the Christian faith meant to be simple? Simple enough for the uneducated and the childlike to understand it? Jesus himself says so in Matthew 11.25:

I praise You, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that You have hidden these things from the wise and intelligent and have revealed them to infants.

As does Paul in 1 Corinthians 1.26-29:

Consider your calling, brethren; there were not many wise according to the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble; but God has chosen the foolish things of the world to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to shame the things which are strong, and the base things of the world and the despised God has chosen, the things that are not, so that He may nullify the things that are, so that no man may boast before God.

And isn’t the Bible sufficient in itself for ‘teaching, correction and training in righteousness’? 2 Timothy 3:16-17 seems to says so. Why then is an entire library of additional books required to make the bible comprehensible? Isn’t that tough on the ‘unintelligent’, ‘weak’ and ‘foolish’?

But I dispute that there’s an intellectual form of Christianity, one that is the result of reading widely and extensively, and comes from thinking through the nuances of a deep and complex theology.

There is no subtlety to a belief-system built on the presumption of supernatural beings. There is nothing intellectual about a philosophy dependent on the irrational interpretations of ‘visions’, dreams and hallucinations. Those who impose intellectualism on such things do just that – impose their own intelligence on something that has none of its own.

So argue all you want that there are subtleties to a transcendent God that those of us (deemed to be) of limited intelligence can’t begin to comprehend and I will show you how those nuances derive from your own mind – you are unable to demonstrate that there is a god, let alone one of almost incomprehensible complexity. Similarly, when you talk about the Trinity, I will show you an idea that is ‘mysterious’ only in the sense it defies all rationality. When you insist on the true meaning of salvation – whether it’s the role of blood sacrifice, forgiveness, works, substitutionary atonement or some other magic that only the initiated can understand – I will show you a book so muddled it presents all of these as incompatible explanations of redemption.

Impose it all you like, denigrate those who dispute it, there is no intellectual element to Christianity (or any religion). Intellectual faith is an oxymoron, comparable with discussions about whether the tooth fairy wears a green dress or a pink one.

The Curious Case of the False News Nativity

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Over on his Biblical Musing blog, Don Camp is eager to show us how, despite their disparities and contradictions, the two very different nativity stories in Matthew and Luke ‘mesh perfectly’.

Let’s take a closer look at some of that perfect meshing, shall we?

Herod v. Quirinius

First, the two accounts can’t even agree on when Jesus was born: Matthew’s gospel claims it was when Herod the Great was king (Matthew 2.1) while Luke says it was when Quirinius was governor of Syria (Luke 2.2). Yet Herod died in 4BCE and Quirinius didn’t become governor of Syria until nine years later, in 6CE. So Jesus couldn’t have been born at a time when both men were in their respective positions. This anomaly, as we’ll see, is a serious problem for the two accounts.

Census v. no census

Luke contrives to get Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem to fulfil the prophecy of Micah 5.2 which said the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem. He comes up with the idea that these Nazareth residents trekked all the way to Bethlehem – a journey of about 80 miles – because of a Roman census. The Romans did indeed conduct a census in 6CE (which presumably is why Luke wants the story to take place then) but it would not have entailed anyone travelling to their ancestral home. Why would it? Can you imagine the chaos that would ensue? The Romans would not, and did not, impose such a ridiculous demand on an already disgruntled populace.

Matthew, meanwhile, doesn’t mention any census – his Jesus was born about 11 years earlier – and he seems to think the family already lives in Bethlehem (Matthew 2.11 & 16). So, was Bethlehem their home as Matthew implies, or did they have to travel there from Nazareth, as Luke insists? Or had they nothing at all to do with Bethlehem? Matthew and Luke’s contradictory accounts are nothing more than clumsy attempts to show that Micah’s ‘prophecy’ is fulfilled in Jesus.

The Manger v. no manger

If they already lived in Bethlehem as Matthew suggests, there would be no reason for Mary and Joseph to search out an inn in which to stay for a census that had nothing to do with them. No inn, no ‘stable’ (though neither gospel mentions a stable as such) and therefore no manger. Yet there it is in Luke 2.7. It’s totally absent from Matthew’s account where, presumably, Mary simply had the baby at home.

Related v. Do I know you?

Luke has a long fable about the pregnancies of both Mary and Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist. He says the two women are related, possibly as cousins, making Jesus and John second cousins. The fourth gospel, however, asserts that the adult Jesus and John don’t know each other (John 1.33), while Matthew – and Mark too – don’t consider any of this significant enough to mention.

Don thinks the gaps in each account are just fine because God arranged for them to be covered by the other gospels. Yet only Matthew and Luke think to include anything about Jesus’ birth, and much of that is contradictory. Don’t Mark and John know anything about it? Was it not important to them? Even Paul, writing closest to Jesus’ lifetime doesn’t see fit to refer to it. Mary, whom both Matthew and Luke say was a participant in events, seems to have forgotten all about them when she later considers her adult son to be out of his mind (Mark 3.21).

The wandrin’ star v. clear blue skies

Nobody but Matthew mentions the star. Was Luke unaware of it? How about everyone else? If it was as astronomically significant as the story suggests, shouldn’t there be a record of it somewhere? And do stars, billions of miles from the Earth, really lead the way to a single spot here on the planet’s surface? Nobody but Matthew falls for this one – but then he would; he’s the one making it up.

Shepherds v. Astrologers

Luke has shepherds, Matthew astrologers who ‘visit the house’ where Jesus lived. Which is it – shepherds or astrologers? Both? If so, why does neither gospel writer mention the other’s set of visitors? Could it be that the shepherds and astrologers have their own symbolic significance in the gospel in which they appear and are therefore literary inventions? One suspects it could be.

Massacre v. nothing to see here

Herod the Great, who died, remember, almost a decade before the Roman census, orders the murder of all baby boys up to two years of age. At least he does in Matthew (2.16-18); Luke knows nothing of this so called ‘Slaughter of the Innocents’, presumably because Herod had been dead nine years by the time his story is set and, presumably, because it never happened. There is no record of such an atrocity anywhere in the historical record. Surely the Romans would have had something to say about it, given Herod was greatly exceeding his powers as a puppet ruler. One might almost think Matthew invented the whole thing just to make it look like another ‘prophecy’ was being fulfilled (Jeremiah 13.15 this time).

Egypt v. home for tea

Matthew (2.13-18) has the family flee to Egypt after the visit of the astrologers to avoid Herod’s hissy-fit and then when he dies (two years later?) they return to make their home in Nazareth (Matthew 2.19-23). According to Luke, however, they lived in Nazareth before the birth (Luke 1.26) and simply went back there once they’d had the eight-day old baby circumcised (Luke 2.38); no mention of the Egypt trip nor of Herod (unsurprisingly when he’s long dead according to Luke’s chronology.)

So there you have it. You be the judge of how ‘perfectly’ the two stories ‘mesh together’. And while you’re doing that, be sure to have a wonderful, superstition-free Christmas.