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

Ashes

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.

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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.

Christianity: a failure from the very beginning

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Christianity just doesn’t deliver. Jesus doesn’t deliver. None of his promises that I outlined last time have ever produced the goods. Not surprising really when he’s been dead for the past two millennia. He’s no more likely to deliver than anyone else who’s been regarded as a god by misguided devotees (and there’s plenty of them).

Yet for those 2000 years Christians have insisted that he does, even when there isn’t a scrap of evidence he’s listened to a single word they’ve said, answered even one of their prayers, enabled them to heal the sick or helped them move mountains – any of the stuff he promised he’d do. So why do they insist he really does? Partly because many of them haven’t a clue that he even said these things. Discussing their faith with Christians online, they often tell me that Jesus never said, for example, that God would give them whatever they ask for or would make their lives better or give them the ability to do miracles greater than Jesus did himself (which of course he does, in Mark 11.24, Matthew 11.28 and John 14.12-14 respectively). In short, they are ignorant of what the bible actually says and all the preposterous magical promises it makes.

Those who do know of its promises have a range of excuses for why they never happen; they were only meant for the early church; today’s believers don’t have enough faith; they were only ever intended metaphorically; God is currently withholding his good will (usually because Christians are too tolerant of everyone else’s ‘sin’). The fact is the promises of Christianity have never delivered.

I’ve been reading Bart D. Ehrman’s The Triumph Of Christianity, where, for entirely different reasons, he lists the problems that beset the church in Corinth (p291) that Paul addresses in his first letter to them. Here’s a summary:

Serious divisions within the church, with different members following different leaders (1 Corinthians 1.12)

Various forms of sexual immorality (1 Corinthians 5)

Men in the church visiting prostitutes and bragging about it (1 Corinthians 6)

Other men under the impression they shouldn’t have sex at all, not even with their wives (1 Corinthians 7)

Fractious arguments about whether Christians should eat meat from animals sacrificed to pagan gods (1 Corinthians 8 & 10)

Some women attending meetings without their heads covered (1 Corinthians 11)

The wealthy greedily eating the shared meals and leaving none for the less well-off (1 Corinthians 11)

Worship that was chaotic because those speaking in tongues were trying to show spiritual one-upmanship (1 Corinthians 12-14)

Members not using their spiritual gifts for the benefit of the community (1 Corinthians 12 & 13)

Some claiming they had already experienced ‘resurrection’ and so were more ‘saved’ than others (1 Corinthians 15)

Apart from one or two specifics, this could be the church of the 21st century! Paul, though, wrote his letter to the relatively small group of believers in Corinth around 54-55CE, a mere twenty or so years after Jesus’ death. Already by then, Christian communities were overcome with problems. There’s no indication they were experiencing the miracles Jesus promised, nor were they behaving like the ‘new creatures’ Paul’s says the Holy Spirit makes of believers:

If anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: the old has gone, the new is here! (2 Corinthians 5.17)

The behaviour of the Christians at Corinth was, by any standard, appalling; they seem to have no more understanding of morality, no more sense of charity, no more demonstration of brotherly love than the ‘heathens’ around them. And yet they were new creatures ‘in Christ’, believers in Jesus, vessels of the Holy Spirit. With all this supernatural support they really should have been doing better – much better – than they were.

I’ve often wondered why Paul didn’t just give up at this point, especially when other churches he wrote to had similar problems. Any rational person would have looked at how these new converts were behaving and would have concluded that the new religion simply wasn’t working. The promises Jesus made (if Paul was even aware of them) and the changes he himself said accompanied conversion simply weren’t happening. None of them had materialised, even at this early stage.

But instead, Paul soldiered doggedly on. He travelled far and wide drawing others into the cult and then had to write to them too, to tell them how to behave and what faith in his Christ actually entailed (see his letter to the Galatians, for example, and that to the church at Philippi). Didn’t Paul ask himself where the Holy Spirit was in all this? Where was the guidance and supernatural assistance promised by Jesus? Despite the airbrushed version of the early church presented in Acts, Paul’s letters tell us what it was really like: a complete disaster.

And so it continued. As Ehrman shows, people converted to Christianity in part because of its promises that believers would avoid hell and live forever in heaven instead. Many convert for the same reason today. With the zero success rate of all of its other promises, it’s not difficult to predict how Christianity’s assurances of eternal life are going to pan out.

‘Why attempt to discredit Christian faith and the teaching of Jesus?’

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Commenter Rebecca has asked me why I feel moved to ‘disparage or discredit the Christian faith’. It’s a fair question and one I set about answering in the comments section. However, my short answer there became rather too long so I’m posting it here instead. Apologies to those who’ve already read my reasons across many other posts here on RejectingJesus.com. I hope you’ll bear with me in this potted version.

I disparage Jesus, primarily, and Christian faith generally, because I want people to see Jesus as he really is – a man from two thousand years ago whose promises were false, prophecies fake and whose morality is impossible:

False Promises

As I’ve joked before, ‘What do you call a man who always fails to keep his promises?’ – ‘Jesus!’

Nothing he promised (or is made to promise; his script-writers came a long time after him1) has ever come to pass. God’s kingdom did not arrive; believers did not, and do not,  perform miracles greater than Jesus himself; they don’t supernaturally heal the sick; God did not and does not supply whatever believers ask of him; he doesn’t provide every need when a person ceases to be concerned for the future; his Comforter doesn’t guide believers into the truth… You name it, none of Jesus’ promises has ever materialised.

Failed Prophecies

No prophecy Jesus is made to make has ever come to pass either: God’s kingdom and judgement did not arrive while the disciples were still alive; heaven and earth did not pass away; God didn’t judge the rich and powerful; he didn’t reverse the social order so the poor, meek and humble inherited the earth; he didn’t reward the righteous; Jesus himself didn’t rise bodily from the grave (all his appearances, including Paul’s ‘vision’ are suspiciously apparition like); he didn’t become ‘the Christ’ and go on to live forever at the right hand of God (Paul and later followers made this up) and no-one has ever been resurrected as result of believing in Jesus

Impossible morality

Nor is anyone capable of living in the way Jesus said his followers should; as a rule they don’t renounce wealth; don’t sell everything they have and give the proceeds to the poor; don’t go the extra mile; don’t turn the other cheek; don’t give the shirt off their back; don’t love their neighbours, let alone their enemies, as themselves. All of these are laudable goals, to be sure, but they’re simply not possible – not even with God’s supposed indwelling spirit. Just look at the majority of Christians today: they simply don’t do it. They can’t do it.

Why does any of this matter (to me)? In one way, it doesn’t. I couldn’t care less about a fraudulent prophet from 2000 years ago. Except…. except those very Christians who fail to live up to his standards have impacted my life in negative, destructive ways. As I’ve written elsewhere, I foolishly gave my life to Jesus at their behest. I allowed them to convince me that everything I was, everything I did, everything I thought was a sin, and that Jesus died for me so that my sin might be forgiven. As a result, I denied myself in the unhealthiest of ways, the cumulative effect of which was suffering for years from a deep, debilitating depression.

I came to realise through this, however, that the belief system I’d given my life to was a falsehood. When I needed God most, the heavens were, as Deuteronomy 28:23 suggests, ‘as brass’. That was because there was no God waiting to hear from me or to answer my prayers. And no God meant no Son of God, no heaven or hell, no panoply of supernatural beings – spirits, angels and demons – no god-inspired holy books. It became clear, as Rebecca concedes, that everything about the faith was entirely human. Ridiculously and fallibly human.

For a Christian friend, however, this decision of mine was untenable. He pressurised me to return to the fold because if I didn’t, I would surely suffer an eternity in hell. I had returned, he said, to a life of sin (principally because of my sexuality), had abandoned all that my saviour had done for me and consequently I would deservedly suffer God’s wrath. The only way to avoid the punishment to come was to get down on my knees, return to Christ and beg for forgiveness. This lengthy, fruitless correspondence – or at least my half of it – became the basis of my first book Why Christians Don’t Do What Jesus Tells Them To …And What They Believe Instead, and that in turn led to this blog.

I also encountered around this time more of the awful, scurrilous lies Christians tell about gay people – that we cause all manner of natural disasters and bring God’s indiscriminate wrath down on the world; that we are degrading and degraded, Satanic and deserve to be put to death – doesn’t the Bible say so? I couldn’t let this hypocrisy and dishonesty go unchallenged, not when it caused, and causes, so much pain, anguish, suffering and even death among LGBT people. Where, I asked myself, was the Christian love for one’s ‘enemies’, the absence of judgement, the determination not to bear false witness, all of which Jesus advocates? In light of most Christians’ inability to live as he commanded (I did say his moral expectations were impossible) I became convinced I had made the right decision, firstly to walk away from faith and, then, in my own small way, to oppose the nonsense spouted by those who propagate it.

My hope for this blog then is that those wavering in their faith might begin to see aspects of Christian belief from a different perspective. They might then start to realise that it is nothing more than a product of the human imagination; a superstition handed down by pre-scientific tribesmen and first century zealots who weren’t in a position to know any better.

I was told over forty years ago by a Christian leader that the most important thing one could do in life to was to pursue truth wherever it led. He was right. The truth turns out to be that, in all probability, there is no God. Knowing this does not leave one hopeless and without purpose – that’s another Christian lie. Instead, it equips you to make your own purpose, to love others in the knowledge that love, like life, is finite, and that this one-and-only life is to be lived to the fullest. To answer Rebecca’s question, atheism does lead to a much more honest and satisfying way of life than pinning one’s hopes on imaginary beings and the claims of a failed Messiah.

That’s the short answer. For the longer version, there’s always the rest of the posts on this blog.

1. Chapter and verse for all references supplied on request.

How it is

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It all depends on the premise from which you begin. I’m tired of the arguments of Christians of all stripes that

   The bible is the inspired word of God

      Jesus died for me

          He really did rise from the dead

                Jesus was, in some sense, the son of God

                     God, or Jesus, loves us and wants to have relationship with us

                          God, or Jesus, will forgive our sins if only we ask him

                            He has supernaturally changed the lives of millions

               We are all, whether we realise it or not, involved in a spiritual battle

       Jesus is coming back soon to judge the world

Most people will go to Hell, a select few to Heaven

We can argue with Christians about these claims – and others you can probably think of yourself – pointing out how the Bible really can’t self-authenticate itself, that just because it appears to say it’s the Word of God doesn’t mean it is; arguing about who wrote the gospels and whether they can be trusted; disputing the resurrection when the bible’s own accounts are so inconsistent; challenging the theology behind Paul’s redemption formula… and so on.

But really, why bother? Take a step back.

All of these ideas are dependent on one thing: that there is a God.

Yet there is no evidence there is. Christians will tell us that that the absence of evidence doesn’t necessarily equate with evidence of absence, but in this case it does. The absence of evidence that I keep a pink unicorn in my garage is fairly conclusive evidence that I don’t – and so it is with God. The evidence for him is circumstantial and so remarkably thin that the probability he exists is virtually zero (I’ve discussed this previously; here, for example). What humans have imagined him to be is not evidence of his external reality; a book written by superstitious sheep-herders and first century fanatics certainly isn’t. And beyond that? Nothing.

It follows that if God doesn’t exist then

       the Bible can’t be his inspired word;

                    Jesus cannot be his son;

                       God cannot have sent Jesus to redeem us;

                            he cannot have raised Jesus from the dead;

                                  he cannot be offended by ‘sin’;

                                        it cannot be God who changes lives;

                                  heaven and hell are not real;

the whole panoply of supernatural beings that populate the bible don’t exist either.

Take away God (and he was never there in the first place) and Christianity with its claims of the supernatural, salvation and eternal life, crumbles to nothing. It is nothing.

So it all depends on your premise. If you’re prepared to believe, against the evidence, that God exists you’ll find substance in the claims of religion. If you recognise that he doesn’t, however, you will also recognise that religion’s claims are illusory, fallacious, deceptive. No need to get involved in fruitless arguments with believers about it; that’s how it is.

On being free

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Commenter Rebecca responded at length recently to my post ‘Why God Could Not Possibly Have Created The Universe (pts 4 & 5)’. There was so much in her response, that I thought it best to reply to her in a full length post rather than with a brief comment:

Hi Rebecca,

I won’t be able to respond to all of your points as there are so many, but will attempt a few.

I’m glad you find your faith beneficial. You’ve obviously thought about the whole incarnation/sacrifice/reconciliation issue, but I wonder whether you’ve ever asked yourself what it is you need saving from and reconciled with? What is it that means you personally need to avail yourself of the sacrifice Jesus supposedly made (however you interpret that)? I guess evangelicals, of which you seem to say you are not one, would claim it’s because of sin; the alienation from God that our very existence seems to cause.

Is that really the case though? Isn’t it rather that ancient superstitious peoples needed some explanation for why life was so difficult, short and brutish? They reasoned that surely it couldn’t be the fault of the creator God, so his tendency to treat them badly must be entirely their fault. Consequently, they had to do something to appease this god, to make him smile upon them again as they felt he must once have done. They thought the way to do this was, variously, through sacrifice and/or righteous living, by murdering those they felt offended him the most, and through praise and supplication.

There is no getting away from the fact, however, that the primary way they sought to reconcile themselves with their deity was through blood sacrifice. The New Testament’s interpretation of the death of Jesus is expressed in just such terms:

In Him we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of our sins, according to the riches of His grace (Ephesians 1.7).

This is not just an evangelical perspective; it is the major theme of much of the New Testament.

I’d like to ask you, Rebecca: are you really so steeped in sin that you need to avail yourself of a bloody human sacrifice in order to be reconciled with God? I have to say it seems extremely unlikely.

I didn’t leave faith behind because of how repugnant this idea is, however. I experienced an epiphany while walking one day, after many years of thinking about such things, and realised with conviction that there was no god: no god to appease, be reconciled with or commune with. He simply didn’t and doesn’t exist (see here for why I think this is the case). Of course, there being no god means there’s no son of god either.

I then started living my life on the basis of the fact there is no god, and I have to tell you it became a whole lot better. I didn’t have the constant feeling I had to come up to some impossible standard; I didn’t feel guilt for the most trivial of ‘sins’; I no longer worried that not getting my beliefs quite right would result in the loss of my eternal life; I stopped worrying about eternal life because it was obvious there was no such thing; I stopped thinking hell and heaven were real; I started living in the here and now; I stopped thinking I had to respond to others’ needs by telling them about Jesus (and started relating to them as people); I no longer had to subjugate whatever intellect I have to force myself to believe things that were clearly nonsense; the self-loathing I felt about my sexuality began to slip away. I could be me, and what a massive relief that was. I think I became a better person as a result. I certainly became a happier one.

You say the bible contains many deep truths – perhaps – but it also includes much that is cruel, spiteful, damaging and just plain wrong. I lost interest in sifting the wheat from the chaff because there was just too much chaff (a free biblical analogy for you there.)

The secrets of life, whatever they may be, Rebecca, are not in the bible, nor in any convoluted explanation of what Jesus stood for (he was just another failed apocalyptic preacher). They do not lie in Christianity or in any religion. Life is more than any of these ultimately dead things.

Thank you for writing. It can only be a good thing that you’re thinking about these issues. You will I’m sure find your way out into the light. I hope what I post here can help you with that.

The evidence for Christ

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The evidence for Christ is not historical — it’s spiritual — and that evidence is indeed abundant for those who believe.

So says T. C Howitt, commenter on the Rational Doubt blog. And what is the ‘abundant evidence’, of which he speaks, for the existence of this spiritual being? It is, he says, ‘spiritual’. That’s quite a tautology: ‘the evidence for my fantasy is my fantasy’.

T.C. goes on to say that only those who truly believe can know that their experiences of the spiritual are real; the rest of us, he decrees, are blind. In other words, evidence that his fantasy is real is that other people have experienced versions of the same fantasy – some of them thousands of years ago. The ‘evidence’ for Christ (as opposed to Jesus) is therefore one’s own feelings plus the strange psychotic experiences Paul relates that he feels sure must be this supernatural being.

Science removes human subjectivity, as far as is possible, from its demonstration of how things are. All that Christians (and other believers in the supernatural) need do is similarly demonstrate that the spiritual realm, with its attendant beings, has an existence independent of human emotions, feelings and imagination. They could show us that, like gravity, electricity and quantum mechanics, Christ and angels, seventh heavens, demons and all manner of spiritual beings, have an existence separate from the internal, subjective experiences of human beings.

They’ve had two thousand years to do just this and still they haven’t. Why not? Because it can’t be done: Christ and his angels, God and his heaven are mythologies and, like all others, are constructs of the human mind.