Why the Nativity reflects the fantasist mentality of those who created it.

Blog348Angels

The Nativity story tells us nothing about Jesus’ origins but plenty about the mindset of those who created it, decades after he lived.

They believed in angels. There are several visitations in the two versions of the story in Matthew and Luke: ‘Gabriel’ appears to Zechariah and strikes him dumb. Gabriel, again, manifests in front of Mary to tell her she hasn’t really been knocked up by a Roman soldier but that she’s going to be impregnated by the Holy Spirit. He then makes a lot of false promises too about how the boy will turn out. Later, a whole host of angels appear to some shepherds to tell them they’ll find a baby in a manger, news, that for some reason, they find amazing.

The creators of the gospels also believed that spirits were everywhere and that one of them was holy. Never mind that, according to John 14.16 & 16.7, the Holy Spirit doesn’t make its appearance until after Jesus’ ascension. In the nativity story, the Holy Spirit ‘speaks’ to Elizabeth, Simeon and Anna (how?) to tell them that Mary’s baby will be special.

The creators of the nativity myth also believed in dreams and visions. Joseph has a dream telling him to take his family to Egypt and the misnamed ‘wise men’ have a dream (just the one or did all of them have the same dream?) telling them not to go back to Herod. What a pity they didn’t ‘dream’ they shouldn’t call on him in the first place.

Angels, spirits and dreams are the context from which the gospel stories emerge: the gospel writers, and those who created their sources, believed implicitly that angels (and devils and demons) were real and that God communicated with them through dreams and visions. More than this, these same people accepted that the dead could return to life. According to the gospels, long-dead people could manifest themselves, and would appear and speak to the living (e.g: Matthew 17.1-3).

Incredibly, 1 in 3 people in the UK, a largely secular society, believes in angels. People with such a mentality were the ones who, 2000 years ago, claimed to have seen Jesus resurrected. Yet Christians insist they were stable, rational, reliable witnesses (never mind that the accounts of such appearances were written third, fourth, fifth hand, decades later.) Any such witnesses were neither stable nor reliable. They were the product of a pre-scientific culture that thought angels and devils populated the very air (Ephesians 6.12); that ancient celebrities could reappear in new bodies (Matthew 11.14; 14.1-2; 16.14); that without doubt that gods spoke to humans in dreams and that angels could and did appear bodily in front of favoured believers. People of such a culture, like Jesus himself, his early followers and the gospel writers, were fully primed, as a result, to have ‘supernatural’ encounters – or at least to interpret other experiences as such. They literally knew no better.

The stories that they wrote, with their supernatural beings and premonitionary dreams and visions – the Nativity, Jesus’ miracles and the Resurrection – are just that: stories, and the truth is not in them.

A happy Christmas to both my readers.

Advertisements

Jesus: Speak not clearly did he

Blog345JC

Why did Jesus not speak clearly? If he came from God, or was God in some way, why didn’t he express himself directly and with precision? Why did he obscure what he had to say with hyperbole, riddles and demands that even he couldn’t meet?

Don Camp, light-weight apologist and C. S. Lewis aficionado, has been giving me a little lecture over in the comments section of Debunking Christianity. He’s been providing the basics in how some of Jesus’ remarks in the gospels are hyperbolic and are therefore not to be taken literally. I am, of course, already aware of Jesus’ tendency to exaggerate (how far does this qualify as false witness, I wonder?) but Don and I were specifically discussing Matthew 5.29-30 where Jesus advises those who lust after a woman to pluck out their right eye and cut off their hand. Don asserted that obviously this is an exaggeration, to be understood figuratively, not literally. I asked him how one distinguishes between the two.

Don responded by saying one should look for clues in the scriptures (the bible as Murder, She Wrote); clues that might reveal how early Christians responded to Jesus’ assertions. If they ignored what Jesus said (while most did disregard his more extreme commands, such as the self-mutilation statements, there is evidence that some did indeed take him literally), then we can safely do the same. If, on the other hand (no pun intended) they acted on what he said, then it’s fair to assume it’s okay for today’s Christians to do the same. Sounds simple right? But it still doesn’t help anyone decide what is hyperbole and what is meant literally.

For example, Christians largely ignore Jesus’ commands to go the extra mile, give the shirts of their back to those who ask for them, turn the other cheek, love their enemies, disavow wealth, sell all they have, give no concern for the future and do all they can for the homeless, sick, naked and displaced. There isn’t a lot of evidence that even early followers did these things. Does their disregard for these commands mean that Jesus must have meant them figuratively? That there is spiritual truth to be discerned from them but that no practical action is expected or required?

Where do Jesus’ apparent assurances that his followers would heal the sick, raise the dead (Matthew 10.8) and do ‘works’ even greater than his (John 14.12) fit? Are these hyperbole or are they intended to be taken literally? Given early Christians serve as Don’s yard-stick for what is hyperbole and what is literal, what did they think? We don’t actually know, though evidently some considered the promises significant enough to include in the gospels. Among today’s believers, there are those – and not just on the fringe – who accept them as literal, while others scoff at the idea of taking them at face value.

What about Jesus’ promises that God’s Kingdom was imminent and that he would rise from the dead? Aren’t these just hyperbole too? Don says no, because people at the time didn’t ignore them (as they did his ‘obvious’ hyperbole) but believed they would happen. Therefore, they must have been meant literally. Unfortunately, Don fails to take into account that the promises of a resurrection were applied retrospectively; Jesus didn’t actually predict his own return from the dead (for reasons discussed here.) The Kingdom of God, meanwhile, failed to materialise when Jesus said it would. The extent to which early Christians believed these promises hardly demonstrates their literal truth. In any case, is ultimate truth to be determined by how ordinary, largely uneducated, superstitious back-water folks responded to what they heard or read? What a spurious and unreliable way to decide.

Which brings me back to my original question. Couldn’t Jesus have been lot clearer about what he meant? Instead, he dressed up a lot of what he said in what might, or might not be, hyperbole. He issued other ‘truths’ in parables that he didn’t intend the hoi-polloi to understand (Mark 4.12). He offered advice that is of no practical use, some of it positively detrimental. He was neither systematic nor consistent and contradicted himself. So much of what he said is open to interpretation, to the extent that there are now thousands of Christian churches, cults and sects, all at odds with one another because they disagree about what he meant.

The New Testament as a whole too is a muddle of conflicting ideas and advice… though that’s a discussion for another time.

According to the Scriptures (not)

Blog344Jonah

Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures. He was buried (and) was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures…

This is Paul’s claim in 1 Corinthians 15.3-4, where he is probably quoting an early Christian creed. He uses the phrase ‘according to the scriptures’ twice, meaning that what he’s claiming fulfils prophecy from the Jewish scriptures. He is not referring to the gospel accounts of Jesus’ death and resurrection as these ‘scriptures’ had yet to be written at the time of 1 Corinthians (circa 54/55AD.) Mark’s gospel was still fifteen or so years away.

So where in the Jewish scriptures – the Christian Old Testament – is there any prophecy that the Messiah would die for the sins of the people? Where the prediction that he would rise from the dead on the third day?

As Michael J. Alter notes, there is no prophecy either that the Messiah would die for the sins of the people nor that he would then rise from the dead. Not one. Passages that are pressed into service by Christians ancient and modern to demonstrate that Jesus’ death and resurrection were presaged in the Old Testament are either not prophecy or they don’t have any bearing on either Jesus’ death or supposed resurrection.

Let’s look at a couple:

In Matthew 12.40, Jesus is made to equate his time in the grave – three days and three nights – with the time Jonah spent in the belly of a great fish. But the Jonah story has nothing to do with events hundreds of years later. It is an ancient fable, not a prophecy delivered by one of the Old Testament’s recognised prophets. In any case, in the story Jonah is being disobedient and is running away from his God-given mission. Jesus, according the gospels, doesn’t do either of these things. Moreover, Jonah does not have to die to spend three days in a fish. He does not resurrect when the fish spews him out. The only aspect the two stories have in common is the period of three days and nights, which as we have seen, bear little relation to how long Jesus was actually in the tomb. Matthew has press-ganged an irrelevant story into service, in an attempt to show that Jesus really was the Messiah. Why does he do this? Because he can’t find any ‘scripture’ that points incontrovertibly to the Messiah dying and resurrecting. Jonah is literally the best he can do.

Modern Christians like to tell us that Isaiah 53 is a prophecy that Jesus would die as a sacrifice for sin. Significantly, none of the New Testament writers attempt to make Isaiah’s ‘suffering servant’ narrative fit Jesus. This is because the suffering servant it describes is the beleaguered Jewish nation; earlier chapters say so several times. To insist that Isaiah 53 describes Jesus’ death and resurrection is to render it incompatible with all the Old Testament prophecies that are actually about the Messiah. For those who created these scriptures, this figure was a warrior, a human who would route the enemies of Israel and usher in the Messianic age. Isaiah 53 is about how the rulers of the kingdoms of this world will stand in awe of this feat. Jesus does not fulfil this role; he was not a warrior, he did not redeem the Jewish nation, he did not route its enemies, he did not bring about the Messianic age. Jesus died an ignoble death and was ‘seen’ afterwards in visions; he was as far from the anticipated Messiah as could be envisaged.

Jesus’ death and resurrection did not happen ‘according to the scriptures’. There are no prophecies in the Old Testament that pertain to Jesus, no foreshadowing of what happened to him. Christian can try to retrofit selected scriptures as much as they like to make it seem as if there are, but none hold up under scrutiny.

On what day did Jesus die?

Blog338Passover

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…

Jesus’ Final Solution

Blog332Composite

Jesus is beautiful. That’s what they were singing on TBN last night – thousands of Christians telling their false-idol Jesus just how lovely he is.

I’m fortunate in life to know some truly genuine and beautiful people and one of the things that qualifies them as beautiful is that they don’t advocate violence, cruelty or self-harm. I don’t know about you, but for me that’s something that marks out a good person. I can’t see folks who promote violence and cruelty as either good or lovely or beautiful. They’re just incompatible.

Unless of course you’re Jesus. Because, as ever, Jesus gets a free pass. He revels in violence and unpleasantness and his followers are always prepared to overlook it, because, well, he’s Jesus. Beginning with Paul he’s been remodelled from the rough itinerant preacher he clearly was to the epitome of all things bright and beautiful.

Here are some of his pronouncements, all hiding in plain sight in the gospels that tell us he was nothing of the sort –

Matthew 13.41-42 (and John 15.6):

The Son of Man will send out his angels, and they will weed out of his kingdom everything that causes sin and all who do evil. They will throw them into the blazing furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.

The fate of those who are not convinced by Jesus’ ‘good news’ is to be thrown into a blazing furnace. He’s not talking about after death here; he’s talking about when God’s Kingdom arrives on the Earth. He wants sinners and those he considers evil to be burnt alive. Jesus, who in Matthew’s gospel sees himself as the Son of Man, sounds more like Hitler than any ‘Prince of Peace.’ Burning people in giant ovens is Jesus’ final solution.

Then there’s Matthew 7.19-23:

Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire… Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that (judgement) day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?’  Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’

Jesus makes clear here he’s talking about believers here – his own followers! If you don’t do all he says, Christians, you too are heading for the flames. What is it with this pyromaniac?

Luke 19.26-27:

I tell you that to everyone who has, more will be given, but as for the one who has nothing, even what they have will be taken away. But those enemies of mine who did not want me to be king over them—bring them here and kill them in front of me.

This is the conclusion of the so-called Parable of the Talents where Jesus emphasises the point of the story. With himself as the King of the World (Matthew 19.27-28) he wants those who don’t appreciate his megalomania to be executed in front of him. What’s not to like about this guy?

Matthew 5.29:

If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. 

Don Camp tells me (see the previous post) that this is meant metaphorically; metaphorically for what, Don? There is no reason to interpret this in any way other than literally. Look at the context: Jesus makes clear in the previous verse he’s talking about how to deal with lusting after women. He thinks the only way to stop yourself from doing this is to gouge out your eye (just the one?) According to Jesus, lust is such a terrible sin, it can only be properly dealt with by blinding yourself.

Matthew 5.30:

And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into hell.

If you think you’re going to manage your lust any other way – by masturbating, for example – then you can forget that too; Jesus wants you to cut off the hand you do it with (or is he using ‘member’ in the modern euphemistic sense of ‘penis’?). The context of this verse is, like the previous one, sexual, and we know how much Christians like context. In case you’re tempted to dismiss this gruesome nonsense as an irrelevant part of Jesus’ message, he repeats it in Matthew 18.8-9.

Matthew 19.12:

For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by men, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Let the one who is able to receive this receive it.

Jesus advocates castration. Or, if you want to insist he’s speaking metaphorically, then he’s suggesting his most avid followers live a life without sex. And we know how well that worked out for the Catholic church. How do we know, though, when he’s being metaphorical and when literal? He hardly makes it clear. I suspect he’s only being metaphorical when Christians don’t like what he’s saying. If this is a metaphor here, it’s a particularly unpleasant one; Christian extremists have castrated themselves on the strength of these words and some have used them to justify castrating others. At the very least we might expect Jesus to have foreseen the consequences of such stupid remarks.

Luke 22.36:

He said to them, “But now if you have a purse, take it, and also a bag; and if you don’t have a sword, sell your cloak and buy one… The disciples said, “See, Lord, here are two swords.” “That is enough,” he replied.

Buy swords? What for? There’s only one purpose for swords – to run other people through. Now why would Jesus be suggesting his pals do that? To put up some resistance when he was arrested? What other purpose could they have in the context? Two swords, it turns out, are enough; though when Peter (according to John) uses his, Jesus castigates him. Talk about mixed messages!

Matthew 10.34-36:

Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household.

Jesus predicts his own disruptiveness. Despite the prediction of the Christmas angels, his message was not one of peace but of division and bloodshed, as his later followers found out (and put these words in his mouth retrospectively.) Is it any wonder when he promised that those who weren’t a part of his cult (and some who were) would be thrown into the flames or put to the sword?

Mark 7.10-14:

Jesus said to the Pharisees: For Moses said, ‘Honour your father and mother,’ and ‘Anyone who curses their father or mother is to be put to death’… But you nullify the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down. And you do many things like that.’

Complicated this one, but essentially Jesus takes the Pharisees to task for not having troublesome youths executed as Moses commanded. In fact, he upholds all the barbaric practices of the Mosaic Law (Matthew 5.17).

Still think he’s a nice guy? Lovely and beautiful? Well of course, because the Jesus worshipped by Christians today – and even by Paul – was not this guy. The beautiful version is a construct that bears no resemblance to the bloodthirsty, furnace-building advocate of self-mutilation who haunts the pages of the gospels. Lovely he was not.

 

The Christian blog that knows better than Jesus

Triablogue-Header-240x1080 (1)

The superior intellects at Triablogue responded to my comment (see previous post below) by telling me they’d already dealt with the claim that Jesus believed the arrival of the Son of Man/the End of the Age/the Final Judgement and God’s Kingdom on Earth were imminent.

They directed me to one of their articles, Misdating the Second Coming, which argues that neither Jesus nor Paul really believed the end was nigh and that the texts which suggest they were need to be interpreted carefully (i.e. to get round what they clearly say to make them say something else.)

I can’t find any other instance of Triablogue contributors proposing that Jesus didn’t really say what the gospels have him say. They don’t dispute, for example, the so-called great commission in Matthew 28.19 (‘Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit‘) even though, with its Trinitarian formulation, Jesus almost certainly didn’t say it. Instead, the know-alls at Triablogue  reserve their hedging for the prophecies that patently failed to materialise, on the basis that Jesus couldn’t possibly have been wrong so he must have meant something else.

I’ve written several posts under the banner Making Excuses for Jesus, on the varied and feeble attempts Christians make to get round the fact the synoptic gospels consistently have Jesus say the Kingdom of God, and all that accompanies it, are just around the corner. His early followers all believed this and his eschatological pronouncements are recorded in all of the earliest texts. Mark’s gospel includes his prophecies about the Son of Man while Matthew and Luke include material not found in Mark from their ‘M’ and ‘L’ (oral?) sources that warn it is the ‘eleventh hour’. The entire thrust of the synoptic gospels is that the Kingdom is about to arrive and therefore people need to be prepared for it: ‘The time is fulfilled, the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe the good news’ (Mark 1.15).

The sayings gospel ‘Q’, which predates Mark and was probably in circulation only a few years after Jesus died, preserves several Son of Man sayings; he would be appearing soon to kick-start the Kingdom. Paul, writing decades before the gospels, tells his readers to expect the Second Coming – the Son of Man having become Jesus himself – while he and they are still alive (Thessalonians 4.14-15). Likewise, the anonymous writer of Hebrews believed he lived in the ‘last days’ (1.1-2) while the nutjob who concocted Revelation claimed he was quoting the Risen Jesus promising he would ‘surely come quickly’ (22.20). The imminence of God’s Kingdom on Earth is the consistent message of the New Testament.

And what do the cerebral Christians at Triablogue do when confronted with a summary of these facts? They don’t approve my comment, that’s what. I guess that’s all you can do when you really don’t have an answer for why your Savior™ got everything so drastically wrong; dishonestly pretend he didn’t and silence those who show that he did

Bible Blunders #568

Zechariah

Over Christmas I heard again the account in Luke, chapter 1, of Mary and Elizabeth’s miraculous pregnancies. The story includes one of the most laughable blunders in the bible.

In what is clearly a re-write of the story in Genesis 17 about Abraham and Sarah, John the Baptist’s father-to-be, Zechariah, is told by an angel that his elderly wife will soon become pregnant. Zechariah, like Abraham, has his doubts and is immediately struck dumb because of his lack of his faith. When the child is born, Elizabeth announces he will be called ‘John’ as per the angel’s instructions. However, according to Luke 1.61-63 ‘the people’ (which people?) thought this a bad idea and said to Elizabeth:

“No one in your family has ever been named John.” So they motioned (‘made signs’ in the NIV) to Zechariah to find out what he wanted to name his son. Zechariah asked for a writing tablet.

Wait – they motioned to Zechariah? Why? He’s been struck dumb – he’s not deaf; he’s perfectly capable of hearing them. Then he asks for a writing tablet. He asks? He doesn’t ‘motion’ for it like the others have just done? It seems he can speak again suddenly – but in that case, why does he need the writing tablet?

Looks like Luke got a might confused here, forgot ol’ Zech had been rendered speechless and thought, for these two verses only, that he’d made him deaf.

And this, brethren, is the Inspired Word of God™.