How the bible gets almost everything wrong: volume 3

Paul4

So there we have it. The bible is historically, scientifically, medically, morally, and psychologically inaccurate. It is a muddle of contradiction and confusion, written by pre-scientific, bronze-age tribesmen and religious zealots who made guesses about how the world worked. In almost every respect they got it wrong.

So what does this mean for the central premise of the book, its claim that the Creator of the universe, the Father of mankind speaks through it? Why should we suppose that when it gets everything else wrong, it manages to get this right?

We shouldn’t. The bible’s knowledge of God comes from the same source as the rest of its information: the wild imaginings of men who knew no better. The bible itself tell us so, many times. By its own admission, it is a catalogue of dreams, visions and inner ‘revelations’. In the New Testament alone there are at least twenty ‘meaningful’ fantasies of this sort, including the entirety of its final book, the aptly named ‘Revelation of St John’. The bible comes from an era when dreams and other subjective internal experiences were widely regarded to have significance as messages – revelations – from the gods, not the routine and not-so-routine workings of the human mind we now know them to be. Every era, before the scientific, regarded them in this way.

So Paul interpreted his psychotic episodes, depicted as a disembodied voice and bright light in Acts but far more dreamlike and hallucinatory in Paul’s own descriptions, as experiences of the risen Jesus himself (1 Corinthians 9.1 & Galatians 1.11-12) and of heaven (2 Corinthians 12.1-4). From these he built up all of his fanciful ideas of ‘the Christ’, not one of them based on anything demonstrable or real. All of them mere notions in his head, notions that others were all to willing to accept as the words of a god. After all, wasn’t that how the Almighty always communicated with mere mortals?

Still today people surrender to these ‘revelations’; Paul’s theology built on out-of-body experiences, the disciples’ grief-induced visions, John’s hallucinogenic ‘bad trip’. These are the foundation of Christianity as we have it, providing all we know of God, Christ and salvation, and all of them without any basis in reality. Some believers even claim to have the same sort of ‘revelations’ themselves; God speaking to them, Christ bathing them in light, visions of Heaven. All of these, again, entirely within their heads and no more real than the occasional appearances of my long dead grandfather in my own dreams. However much Christians might insist on a rational basis for their beliefs, it is an inescapable fact that the faith has its origins in ancient people’s dreams and hallucinations. Rationalising after the fact doesn’t alter this.

I don’t know about you, but I’m not interested in basing my life on others’ emotionally-induced inner visions, whether those of a Paul, or a Joseph Smith or a contemporary whack-job. I don’t want to learn about the world and life from people whose understanding and knowledge derive from their sub-conscious and hallucinatory fantasy life. Give me science any day, with its attempts to minimise subjective, human biases from its exploration of how things are. Give me its discoveries that have enhanced life, however imperfectly, in the here and now. Above all, give me honest rationality over sub-conscious imaginings and psychoses.

I have no interest in a god, or a saviour, constructed from other people’s dreams, visions or hallucinations, even, or especially, when they’re recorded in that most unreliable of sources, the bible.

 

Whatever happened to the Kingdom of God?

Cross4

Jesus clearly and unequivocally announced that the Kingdom of God would soon be coming to the earth (Matthew 16.27-28; Matthew 24.27, 30-31,34; Luke 21.27-28, 33-34 etc).

This was his Good News. According to the synoptic gospels his entire ministry was about announcing the arrival of this Kingdom and demonstrating it was just around the corner (Mark 1.15; Luke 11.20 etc). All of his teaching was predicated on his belief that God was soon to intervene in human affairs to right all wrongs, repair injustices and punish the wicked (Matt 5.3-12; 25.31-46). He had no message other than this.

Yet many – most? – Christians refuse to acknowledge any of this. For Christians, Jesus was about something else entirely. Many of them argue that even though he might have appeared to say that God’s Kingdom was imminent, this wasn’t what he really meant.

When he promised it would happen ‘within this generation’ (Matt 24.34), they say, what he really meant was the generation alive after certain calamities had taken place (Matt 24.15-31), evidently more than 2000 years into the future. As I’ve suggested before, this makes him one heartless bastard, standing, as he did, in front of the meek, the hungry and the downtrodden and promising them all would soon be well, when he was ‘really’ referring to people who wouldn’t be born for another two millennia.

But then he’s more specific about who he intends the promises for, when says in Matthew 16:28, “Truly I tell you, some who are standing here will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.” ‘Some who are standing here’ – the people who were physically present, there in front of him, being addressed by him. It’s difficult to maintain that he meant people in the far future when he specifies those who are ‘standing here.’ Yet Christians maintain just this.

“Aah, yes,” they say, “but he was clear no-one knew the hour of the Kingdom’s return – not even himself.” Yes, he did say this – in Mark 13.32 – but there’s no conflict between this claim and his insistence the Kingdom would arrive soon. We all do this sort of thing when we say, ‘my parcel is due to be delivered some time today but I don’t know when exactly.’ This is what Jesus is claiming: ‘the Kingdom will be here very soon, though I don’t know precisely when.’ Too right he didn’t.

Nonetheless he thought he had a pretty good idea. In Matthew 10.23 he sends the disciples off to announce its arrival to the cities of Israel and tells them the Kingdom will have arrived before they return. When they get back (in the next verse!) the Kingdom is still conspicuously absent, so he and the gospel writers conveniently forget all about his rash promise. Where’s a good editor when you need one?

And then it all goes wrong for him. Jesus is arrested for his seditious idea that the existing system is about to be overturned and replaced (Matt 19.28), and he’s sentenced to death. Did he continue to hold out hope that God would act before the execution could be carried out? Did he expect his Heavenly Father to carry out a last minute rescue by bringing in the Kingdom with a great show of power? It seems likely, but as he hangs on the cross he realises, finally, that God is not going to act. God has let him down, as he always must, and deserted and despondent Jesus cries out in dereliction: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15.34). How could he have got it so wrong?

‘No, no, It can’t end like this,’ cry the Christians in return (and indeed it didn’t). But how to explain (away) the great failure of Jesus’ mission heralding the arrival of God’s Kingdom on earth?

Don’t worry, our Christian friends are up to the task.

Next time…

 

The original ‘good news’ had nothing to with any mystical salvation plan (part two)

Disciples2

Last time, I provided evidence that Jesus’ original ‘good news’ had nothing to do with any mystical salvation plan constructed around his supposed resurrection. My six references demonstrated that, even after his death, the disciples adhered to Jesus’ original message: God’s Kingdom was coming soon and they were going to rule over it. Here are six more reasons we can be sure this was the case:

7. Our earliest sources, Q and the gospel of Mark, do not give much credence to the resurrection as an actual event: Q records no sayings of the risen Jesus and Mark has no resurrection appearances; it ends with the women who discover the empty tomb deciding not to tell the disciples about it. In Mark’s gospel, then, the disciples are not even aware the tomb is empty, let alone that Jesus has returned from the dead. We can conclude from this that the community that produced Mark’s gospel, the supposed resurrection was not significant in and of itself.

8. Paul tells us that the disciple’s gospel was not the same as his, despite the fact he too believed the Kingdom wasn’t far off (1 Thessalonians 4:17). The disciples, he says in 2 Corinthians 11.4-5 and Galatians 1.6; 2.11-21, were preaching ‘a different gospel’. Different from his, certainly, but the same as the ‘good news’ Jesus proclaimed: Jewish people should prepare for the imminent arrival of God’s Kingdom on Earth (Mathew 9.35; 15.24), when, as Jesus himself had promised them, the disciples would judge the restored tribes of Israel and rule over them. It is, as we have seen, out of the question that they would jettison this aspect of the ‘good news’, given to them by Jesus himself.

9. Because the disciples – and Jesus’ brother James – saw the new Kingdom as intended for Jews only, as Jesus had before them (Matthew 10.23), they insisted that any Gentile converts must be circumcised; must become Jewish (Galatians 2.7). Paul, of course, objected to this requirement and throws tantrums about it in his letters (Galatians 5.1-12; Philippians 3.3). But like Jesus, the disciples saw no place for Gentiles, the unrighteous, in the new age; those who didn’t convert would, of necessity, be dispatched to eternal punishment (Matthew 25.31-46).

10. As far as the disciples were concerned, therefore, it was entirely for their own good that converted Gentiles be circumcised (Galatians 6.12-13) as this was their only guarantee of a place in the new Kingdom. What this tells us is that a salvation formula, such as that dreamt up by Paul, had no part in the disciples’ ‘good news’.

11. Wherever they appear – in Paul’s writing, the gospels, Acts – the disciples are portrayed as being at odds with an incantational, faith-based Christianity. The Bible attests, even with Paul’s new religion superimposed, that they held to a different gospel, a different sense of what Jesus’ life meant and a different notion of their place in the coming Kingdom. And wouldn’t they be the ones to know? They knew Jesus, spent time with him, listened to his teaching, bought into his misguided mission and had sufficient understanding of it to spread his ‘good news’ to fellow Jews, both while he was still alive and afterwards (Matthew 10.23; Luke 9.1-2).

12. The New Testament is testimony to the failure of everything Jesus and the disciples stood for; their ‘news’ that God was soon to turn the Earth over to the meek and that they would then rule the only people who mattered, the twelve tribes of Israel, with everyone else thrown into outer darkness (Luke 13:28). Jesus himself, of course, would return at some point to be top dog, God’s representative on Earth – his anointed one. None of this happened.

If only it had been allowed to rest there, we might not know today of Jesus and his mad ideas. Instead, Paul stepped in, reinterpreted the whole ridiculous enterprise and bequeathed the world a set of different but equally absurd beliefs. And the rest is history: religious wars, pogroms, inquisitions, suppression, superstition, clerical child abuse, Pat Roberston. Is this the Kingdom that Jesus and his closest associates foresaw? Decidedly not. But it is their legacy.

The original ‘good news’ had nothing to do with any mystical Salvation Plan ™

 

Pentecost

As I disussed last time, there are indications throughout the New Testament that Jesus’ original ‘good news’ had nothing to do with a mystical salvation plan. There are clues too that the disciples clung to this original message – they’d heard it from Jesus himself, after all – even as other interpretations began to supersede it.

Let’s take a look at the evidence:

  1. Jesus tells his chosen twelve, which includes Judas, that they will rule with him in the age to come (Matt 19.28). As Bart Ehrman points out1, the fact that Jesus evidently had no foreknowledge of Judas’ later betrayal means this promise undoubtedly goes back to Jesus – it is unlikely later believers would have made it up. Though their names vary between gospels, Jesus hand-picked twelve men to rule with him.

  2. He appoints twelve disciples quite specifically and later tells them privately that this is so they can judge and each rule one of the twelve tribes of Israel once God’s Kingdom arrives (Luke 22.30).

  3. When Judas kills himself, the remaining eleven disciples think it vital to appoint a replacement twelfth (Matthias, in Acts 1.21-26). The number remains significant to them. How would they be able to rule the twelve tribes of Israel if there were only eleven of them? There had to be twelve for this very purpose. Even after Jesus’ death and supposed resurrection, the disciples are still preparing for the end of the age he prophesied and for their positions of power in God’s Kingdom.

  4. By the time the synoptic gospels were written, Jesus secret teaching that the Twelve would rule alongside him in the new kingdom had become common knowledge (hence its inclusion in the gospels). Given that he told them in private they’d be judges and rulers, it can only have been the disciples who later broadcast this information. And why would they do this? Because it was an integral part of their good news. Furthermore, all three synoptic gospels include a range of episodes in which the twelve are castigated for their presumption (eg: Mark 10.37-41; Matthew 20.22-24; Luke 22.24-30). These have all the hallmarks of stories created later, when a different ‘good news’ was emerging, specifically to mock the disciples’ belief.

  5. In much the same way, the disciples are consistently depicted as having no real understanding of Jesus’ mission (Mark 9.30-32; 10.35-45). And they don’t, in that they have no understanding of the later reinterpretation of Jesus’ significance. How could they? By the time the gospels came to be written, the mystical-Christ version of Christianity had started to take hold. Paul’s salvation plan and the supposed resurrection were beginning to assume greater importance than Jesus’ original message. How could the disciples, 40 years earlier, have known that this was going to happen? How could Jesus? They have to be portrayed as being largely ignorant of later developments – developments which, in any case, they opposed when they did encounter them (Acts 9.26; Galatians 1.6; 2.11-14; 3.1-3).

  6. In fact, Jesus teaching – all of it – was predicated on his belief that the Kingdom of God was ‘at hand’, imminent, about to happen real soon (Mark 1.15; 9.1; 13.30; Matthew 10.23; 16.28; 24.34), and that when it did, he and his chums would be there ruling it. It is unthinkable his inner circle would abandon this teaching, even after he died, in favour of something else. Any visions they had of him returned from the dead would only have reinforced their commitment to his ‘good news’; resurrection, after all, was a sure sign of the Kingdom’s arrival (Daniel 12.2-3).

To be continued…

1 Ehrman, Bart D., The Lost Gospel of Judas, p146

Good news? What good news?

Disciples

Here’s what we know so far:

  1. There is no evidence the disciples were martyred.

  2. There is no evidence the disciples were martyred simply for believing that someone they knew had returned from the dead. In the age in which they lived such a claim wouldn’t have been out of the ordinary. The gospel accounts themselves record instances of resurrections other than Jesus’ and of miraculous manifestations of the dead. This was how people thought.

  3. There is no evidence that believing a dead man was alive again was a capital offence. Really, who could possibly care? Even Paul did not suggest that, as Saul, he liked to persecute early believers because of this belief.

  4. The gospel preached by Jesus and his disciples was completely different from that promoted by Paul. Their good news was about the imminent arrival of the Kingdom of God, when the Romans would be overthrown and every injustice made right (Luke 13.30). And while they may not have made it public, Jesus and his friends believed they would be the judges and rulers of this new system.

  5. This ‘good news’ existed long before Jesus died and long before Paul came along to change its nature entirely (Matt 10.23).

  6. Matthew and Luke, while including resurrection stories inspired by ‘visions’ like Paul’s, preserve, as does Mark, Jesus’ apocalyptic teaching. His promise of the coming Kingdom and his private teaching that he and his disciples would rule the new age together remain a significant part of the synoptic gospels.

  7. Jesus was executed for his seditious views (Mark 15.2, 9 & 32; John 19.19-20)

  8. It is likely, if they were martyred at all, that the disciples were killed for the same reason.

There are further indications in the New Testament that the original ‘good news’ had nothing to do with a mystical salvation plan and that the disciples clung to this original message – they’d heard it from Jesus himself, after all – even as other interpretations began to supersede it. We’ll look at these indications next time.