Why I’m not watching the News any more

I’ve reached the point where I can’t watch or read mainstream news reports. I’ve had difficulty with them throughout the pandemic with their incessant reporting of Covid cases and deaths completely devoid of context (how many cases were serious enough to cause hospitalisations? How many deaths were ‘of’ Covid rather than ‘with’ it? How many of the deaths were excess deaths; how many people die in any given period normally?) Ignoring context, the media became intent on fostering anxiety and panic. Their reporting was not independent; in the UK at least they parroted uncritically and relentlessly the government’s position. This, in turn, was shaped by the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) and in particular the predictions of computer modeller Neil Ferguson. Ferguson, regularly interviewed on BBC news programmes, was, as he now admits, wrong on every occasion. Very wrong. The pandemic was nowhere near as drastic as he repeatedly said it was going to be (I’m not disputing how serious it was. It was not, however, anywhere as near as bad as he kept predicting it would be). Yet the government and the media continued to rely on his predictions as if they were fact.

All of which is the reason I reduced my watching, listening and reading of the news to a minimum. Headlines only. Early in the summer of this year, the UK government felt the need to restore some normality to society, it asked the mainstream media to reduce its reporting of Covid statistics. All media outlets immediately complied. Conservatives can never say again that the BBC in particular is biased against them; it has done their bidding throughout the pandemic.

This is not, however, the reason I am abandoning the news, giving up even on headlines. I am tired of predictions, conjecture, speculation, forecasts and extrapolation. None of these is news. They are attempts to see the future, something that we are incapable of doing. Of course we need to be aware of potential consequences of decisions or actions, our own, governments’ and society’s. But reporting those possible consequences as fact, as outcomes that are inevitable, fait accompli, like Neil Ferguson’s hopeless predictions, is not what news reporting should be about. Its job is to tell us what has happened, how, where and possibly why (analysis). That it extends itself well beyond this by determining for us what a particular development means ‘for the future’ or ‘’in the long term’ is nothing more than supposition. It also, dangerously, leads to some self-fulfilling prophecy, such as we’ve seen in the reporting of recent supply chain difficulties. That these were restricted to specific areas was not reported but the possibility that these difficulties could, possibly, maybe, result in food shortages was. Result? Panic buying and food shortages in some areas. The same happened with supposed fuel shortages. Christmas is now in danger according to the UK media.

With Covid largely off the agenda, the news media find themselves in need of something else with which to fill schedules; some alternative source of doom and gloom. The mainstream (in the UK, at least) has opted for climate change, replete with forecasts of catastrophe, destruction and extinction. Of course it’s possible that if we do not act collectively to reduce the human contribution to climate change, that these outcomes will come to pass. It’s possible but it isn’t certain to be the case. Who remembers the media reporting that by this point in the 21st century we would be living in an ice age because of climate change? (This speculation is still about and has traction in some quarters).The news is that climate change is happening. That’s it. What we might do about it is for some other source that doesn’t claim to be delivering news.

I am tired of the narrative of the day, be it #MeToo, Brexit, BLM, Covid, climate change. Tired of its promotion by the media, of the prediction and conjecture that goes along with it, but only while it attracts sufficient viewers or readers. When something more ‘newsworthy’, sensational and alarmist comes along, what was once narrative of the day is dropped. There’s a new bandwagon to jump on! This time though, I’m doing the dropping first.

 

What are the Odds?

To look at it another way…

The stories of the Old Testament are largely fictional. They’re myth, legend and otherwise fabricated. There was no Eden, no world-wide flood, no slavery in Egypt, no Exodus. There’s no evidence that the characters around which events supposedly took place actually existed: no Noah, Abraham, Moses, Job, Jonah or Daniel. Their stories were created long after the time they purportedly lived; centuries later. The stories written about kings – which, if they existed, were no more than half-remembered tribal chiefs – and the so-called great prophets are constructed from folktales. In short, nothing we read in the Old Testament actually happened.

When we get to the New Testament, we find convoluted exposition of Paul’s ‘revelations’ about Jesus; visions and imagined sightings of a celestial being he had in his own head. It’s the same for the fruitcake writer of Revelation who envisaged an unreal comic book Jesus; invention every bit of it. The Acts of the Apostles offers a fanciful and wholly inaccurate ‘history’ of the early church, including angels, teleportation and fatal miracles. Of the 21 letters in the New Testament, at least 11 are forgeries, known to have been written by anonymous authors who were not who they claimed to be. The other 10, including Paul’s genuine letters and the likes of Hebrews, make up all sorts of mystical stuff about an angelic Godman-cum-high priest.

 And yet, in the midst of these myths and legends, made-up characters and stories, forgeries and fantasies and mystical musings stands the indisputable truth of the gospels. Or so Christians and theologians would have us believe. These particular stories, surrounded as they are by fiction on all sides are historical, factual and true.

What are the odds?

Bathwater

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While putting together the ‘Can You Be a Christian and…’ series, I encountered on more than one occasion the line of reasoning (I use the term lightly) used by moderate Christians that, essentially, certain parts of the Bible are no longer relevant. So you can, they said, be both a free thinker and a Christian; you can be gay, so long as you disregard what the bible says about homosexuality; you can be a Christian woman if you dismiss Paul’s denigration of women; you can acknowledge evolution provided you reinterpret what the bible says about creation; you can be a realist if you ignore the bible’s supernaturalism.

But if you’re going to disregard anything the bible teaches that appears incompatible with what we know about psychology, sexuality, biology and reality, then how does the Bible’s central objective truth, as one commenter on here calls it, survive? What makes its core message (that, in some way, Jesus’ death and resurrection is capable of saving humankind) an immutable, eternal truth, while almost everything else can be compromised, deemed to be ‘culture-bound’ and metaphorical, to the point of irrelevance?

I recognise, of course, that fundamentalist Christians don’t do this. For them the bible is inspired, infallible and immutable. They’re prepared to compromise themselves, science and reality in order to honour and preserve what the book says. For them evolution, feminism, homosexuality and independent thinking will always be wrong. The alternative is to acknowledge that the bible doesn’t get everything right and to take the approach of the liberal progressive Christian who is prepared to adjust and adapt what it says; to emasculate it.

Which brings us back to asking where this process stops. If progressive Christians are prepared to dilute to the point of meaninglessness what the bible has to say about creation, women, sexuality and reality itself then why not what it teaches about Jesus and salvation?

It’s a fact that almost all varieties of the Faith, including fundamentalism, are happy to ignore completely Paul and Jesus’ teaching that the Kingdom of God was due to arrive, in all its glory, in their own time. It’s the same with Jesus’ moral extremism (giving to all who ask, loving enemies, turning the other cheek.) So why not the rest of it?

Why are Paul’s muddled theology and selected bits of the Jesus stories considered to be the baby while the rest of the bible is the disposable bathwater? On what basis do progressive Christians decide what is inessential and what is crucial, critical, indispensable? Ideas about angry deities, blood sacrifice, the sins of the people and the resurrection of god-men are every bit as culture-bound as the bible’s perspective on all those other issues.  

Because really, in the end, it’s all bathwater.

 

Can you be a Christian and… a Woman?

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…women should adorn themselves in respectable apparel, with modesty and self-control, not with braided hair and gold or pearls or costly attire, but with what is proper for women who profess godliness—with good works… Let a woman learn quietly with all submissiveness. I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet… she will be saved through childbearing—if they continue in faith and love and holiness, with self-control (1 Timothy 2:9-10; 13-15).

The women should keep silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be in submission, as the Law also says. If there is anything they desire to learn, let them ask their husbands at home. For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church (1 Corinthians 14:34-35).

But I want you to understand that the head of every man is Christ, the head of a wife is her husband, and the head of Christ is God (1 Corinthians 11:3).

Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Saviour. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands (Ephesians 5:22-24).

Wives, submit to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord (Colossians 3.18).

(Women should) be self-controlled, pure, working at home, kind, and submissive to their own husbands, that the word of God may not be reviled (Titus 2:3-5).

So according to the cult handbook, women must be –

submissive, quiet, silent, submissive, under a man’s authority, modest and… submissive. They should work at home, do nothing that might embarrass their husbands and have no authority over any men.

If a woman wants to be a Christian this is the behaviour she must assume. Above all, she must be submissive to the men God has placed above her, from her husband to… well, every other male.

What self-respecting woman is going to submit herself to this?

But wait, I can already hear liberal, enlightened Christian women approaching, all set to tell me that these New Testament admonitions are no longer relevant because they’re ‘culture bound’. They were devised, by men, in a first century milieu and therefore they don’t apply today! Which is odd, given they were applicable for almost all of the previous two thousand years, well beyond the time and context in which they were written. Not until the twentieth century, when the church’s power began to wane and women began to demand equal treatment with men, was the Bible’s misogyny questioned. Less than a hundred years have passed since women’s rights were reluctantly acknowledged by western society, even less since parts of the church caught up.

Many evangelical churches today still subscribe to the ‘commands’ of Paul and the imposters that followed in his wake. They expect their women to be silent, modest, under men’s authority and submissive. Witness the number of Christian blogs that traduce women, many written by women who regard themselves as ‘godly’ wives. Look at the frequent attacks by fellow evangelicals on female preachers like Beth Moore and Joyce Meyer, who ‘presume’ to teach men. (I can’t stand either of them personally, but not because they’re women.)

Liberal churches, however, know better. They safely consign the New Testament views of women to history; curios that provide an insight into how first century cultists thought, none of which are binding on today’s women. The world has moved on. Indeed it has; western culture has changed its views on women and their rights and roles, with little help from the church. While this is a very good thing, aren’t Christians told not to conform to ‘the world’? They are (Romans 12.2). Clearly this is yet more biblical teaching that can be ignored when it suits.

So, can you be a woman and a Christian? Evidently so, though it involves either compromising yourself as a woman to comply with the Bible’s warped ideas of what you should be and how you should behave – or compromising the Bible’s directives in order to respect and be yourself. But is compromise really what Christianity is about? Paul and his fellow fanatics didn’t seem to think so.

Metaphor, Hyperbole and Context

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A moderate and self-styled ‘intellectual’ Christian told me in a online discussion recently that ‘most of the bible is metaphor’. When I asked what it was a metaphor for, he decided it was time to end the discussion. A metaphor signals a deeper or alternate meaning; the bible cannot be ‘mostly metaphor’ without there being something else – what Christians might regard as a ‘greater truth’ – the metaphor is intended to convey. So, yes, I can see that the Genesis creation stories might be interpreted metaphorically (though symbolically might be a better term) as the inclination of all humans to rebel against God… but then that’s only one of many interpretations, and not actually what the text says. If the bible is mostly metaphor then understanding what God is supposedly communicating through it becomes a matter of personal, subjective interpretation, which is why there are so many factions and sects within the Christian brand.

Similarly, when I challenged Dave Armstrong on Biblical Evidence for Catholicism, about why Christians don’t take everything Jesus said literally, he told me it’s because Jesus was fond of hyperbole and it’s the point underlining his hyperbole that matters. I knew, of course, that Jesus liked to exaggerate so I asked Dave how we know which of Jesus’ remarks are hyperbole and which are not. He declared that this was ‘obvious’. Perhaps it is, in sayings like ‘when your eye offends you pluck it out’, but it’s less apparent with pronouncements like ‘sell all you have and give to the poor’ or ‘abandon everything and follow me’. Again, it becomes a matter of subjective opinion, however learned that opinion might consider itself to be, about which of Jesus’ words are hyperbole and which are meant to be followed to the letter.

When I made this point, Dave decided that, rather than it being ‘obvious’, it actually takes years of study to know which is which: ‘It’s by studying Bible commentaries and linguistic aids, and the rules of hermeneutics and exegesis (Bible interpretation).’ Jesus as the incarnation of the God of the Cosmos, and the gospels in reporting him, could surely have made it clear. Instead, it seems, it takes armies of theologians and commentators, and years of study to work it out.

The third way Christians (of all stripes) manoeuvre around the bible’s shortcomings is to say that anything they’re keen to disregard is ‘context-bound’. There are some matters, they say, that are of their time and ancient place and are therefore no longer applicable today.

There are things in God’s timeless Word that pertain only to the time in when they were written? Who knew?

So, instructions like ‘greet each other with a holy kiss’ (which Paul advocates four times in his letters: Romans 16:16, 1 Corinthians 16:20, 2 Corinthians 13:12, and 1 Thessalonians 5:26); ‘women should always have their heads covered in church’ (1 Corinthians 11:2-16) and ‘heal the sick by anointing with oil’ (James 5:14) are now generally considered to be context-bound. This, however, creates the same problem that arose over Jesus’ hyperbole. How do we know which of the bible’s pronouncements are context-bound and which are still of significance today? Answer: we don’t.

It could be argued that, just as ‘greet each other with a holy kiss’ is a custom anchored in the first century, beliefs like

the world is populated by demons,

humans are capable of living forever,

and

incantations (that Jesus is the Saviour) work

are equally context-bound. We know categorically in the 21st century, that demons don’t exist, humans cannot live forever and magic spells don’t work. Only those in a pre-scientific age, dominated by superstition, thought so (together with those today who buy into these same ancient beliefs.)

Once believers start claiming – and it’s Christians themselves who do this – that significant parts of the bible are metaphor, hyperbole or are context-bound, then they’re acknowledging that the bible frequently makes little sense, and that significant portions  lend themselves to whatever interpretation suits the individual reader. Some parts can even be dismissed altogether, which is precisely what Christians do with them (how many Christians do you know who believe they can move mountains or heal the sick by laying on of hands?) What this shows is that they don’t really believe the bible is God’s Word, either in the literal, evangelical sense, nor in a moderate, quasi-intellectual way.

In practice, even to most Christians, the bible is a book of no particular merit.

Bible Truths

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If ever there was evidence that Christianity is an entirely human affair it’s the way believers constantly disagree with each another. If the bible really was, in some way, ‘the Word of God’ (they don’t all agree even with what this might mean) then surely it would offer greater clarity on what being a Christian entails. Given what’s at stake – heaven or hell, a life of fullness or one spent mired in sin, helping the poor and hungry or self-indulgence – you’d think God would be just a little more precise about what his expectations are.

Instead, what do we get? A rag bag collection of myths, pseudo-history, folklore, poetry, fantasy, yet more pseudo-history, letters, forgeries and invective. Muddled and inconsistent about what the Supreme Being requires of his creation, it ranges from a forever agreement that says following a set of arbitrary laws is what he wants, along with a spot of male genital-mutilation (Genesis 17.1-16), to a new scheme that involves magical incantation (Romans 10.19), to yet another that says helping those in need is what he requires (Matthew 25.31-40).

I’ve been involved at different times in my life with writing policy documents for a range of organisations. Despite creating what I’d estimate to be around 50 of these documents, it never occurred to me to cobble together myth, stories, letters and fake news in even one of them. They needed to be precise, detailing how the organisation worked, what its take was on various areas of operation and, most importantly spelling out for people as clearly as possible what was expected of them. This precision was important; the documents had to be water-tight and open to as little interpretation as possible. They couldn’t allow for the possibility of one part of the organisation acting in one way in a given area while another acted completely differently in that same area.

If I, a fallible human, could manage this more often than not, why couldn’t God?

Why could he not declare definitively how old the Earth is so as to leave no room for dispute?

Why could he not set out his requirements for pleasing him as one single, unequivocal list? (he’s not averse to bullet points – see his ten commandments, of which he manages to present two largely incompatible versions, both of them fairly useless.)

Why could he not ‘inspire’ scribes contemporaneous with the figures in the Old Testament to record what happened as they happened and not centuries later?

Why could he not ‘inspire’ eye-witnesses of Jesus ‘ministry’ to write about it at the time, instead of waiting decades before giving the job to strangers who’d never met him?

Why could he not say decisively what happens to people when they die?

Why could he not present one definitive way of how to get in his good books instead of offering a range of confused alternatives, about which he is prone to change his mind?

And so on and so forth…

If the managing director of an organisation produced policy documents as shoddy and shambolic as God’s they wouldn’t last five minutes. Nor would the organisation.

But of course God didn’t write, inspire or otherwise cause the bible to be written. It’s human through and through, culturally-bound (to a range of ancient cultures) and not intended by its myriad authors to be a single volume. This fact doesn’t trouble most Christians; they read it selectively, if they read it at all, and believe what they are told about it. Others, who are aware of the bible’s shortcomings, have a variety of ways of negotiating around them. All of these entail great dollops of cognitive dissonance. We’ll look at some of them next time.

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

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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.

Jesus: Speak not clearly did he

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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 a 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)

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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?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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