Jesus just isn’t up to it

A brief diversion from considering why God couldn’t possibly have created the universe…

Falls

Billy Graham’s grandson, Boz Tchividjian, has been addressing the issue of child abuse in the protestant church. He concludes his considered comments with the claim that,“there was no greater defender of children than Jesus.” Presumably he bases this on the few things Jesus is made to say about children in the gospels – all two of them: ‘suffer the little children’ (Luke 18.15-17) and that stuff about ‘whoever leads a little one astray’ (Mark 9.42), which is really more about the precariousness of faith than children. And, according to Boz, this qualifies Jesus as the greatest defender of children ever. No-one has ever done anything ‘greater’ for them. Not Dr Barnardo, not Save the Children, not the NSPCC, not foster carers or ordinary mothers and fathers. Nope, Jesus is the best ever child protector. The same Jesus in whose name both Catholic and Protestant churches have systematically abused young people down the years.

I never cease to be amazed at the willingness of Christians to superimpose every conceivable virtue, and quite a few prejudices, on a long dead itinerant preacher. But this is no modern phenomenon. It began within a few years of Jesus’ death, when religious zealot Saul decided that a peculiar turn he’d had was really Jesus returned from the dead. On the back of this, Saul – newly rebranded as ‘Paul’ – invented all manner of nonsense about a man he’d never met, his entire, tortured theology bearing little relation to any individual who had ever actually lived. We know this is what happened because of the disciples’ objections to Paul’s ideas and the very different ways in which Jesus was later to be portrayed in the synoptic gospels.

Then the crank who wrote Revelation added even more to the Jesus legend; he was now an avenging warrior-king, ready to fight dragons and smite his enemies right, left and centre.

And still it goes on: Christians insist Jesus was perfect, that he did not ‘sin’ or do anything immoral, when the figure in the synoptic gospels is alternately misogynistic, xenophobic, insulting, prone to anger, supportive of slavery and megalomaniacal. Far from perfect, in fact.

Not so, say other Christians who make it up as they go along; Jesus is a great protector and defender, looking after his flock from Heaven. But in reality, his protection is non-existent, as those who implored him to divert hurricane Harvey recently discovered. (We can be sure his uselessness as an insurance policy won’t change the way any of them regard him.)

Even if Jesus isn’t perfect or a great defender, he is, according to extremist nincompoop, Kevin Swanson, a divine punisher, inflicting natural disasters as a result of people’s ’embrace of sexual perversion’. Yet at the same time, he has a special affection for the good ol’ US of A, steering Donald Trump into the presidency and pulling his strings to Make America Great Again.

Or maybe Jesus is really a financial wizard; proponents of the ‘prosperity gospel’ say so, despite Jesus’ repeated repudiation of wealth in the gospels. On the other hand, he’s a sensitive little snowflake, easily offended by anything and everything we do down here on Earth, to the extent he gets upset by what’s on the TV.

Jesus can barely bear the weight of the incredible claims made for him in the gospels (miracle worker, prophet, healer), even though this is a great deal less than the characteristics he’s had projected on him since. Jesus was not eternal, nor the ultimate sacrifice as Paul claimed; he was not God himself as later Christians determined; he was not perfect, nor the greatest defender of children ever; he was not a super-hero warrior-king, nor was he patient, meek or mild. He did not have a preference for a nation that did not exist in his time nor was he explicitly anti-gay. Despite how he’s invariably shown in devotional material produced by western Christians, he certainly wasn’t white. He wasn’t even a Christian.

All of these attributes have been added to him, long after his death, by those who need and want him to be these very things, who need a saviour in their own image. The many Christs that exist, from those invented in the first century to those worshipped today, are, every one, figments of the human imagination.

 

 

 

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God approves of slavery

slavery

Over on his blog site, Biblical Musing, Don Camp is trying to justify why God appears to condone slavery. It’s not the first time Don has tried to defend the indefensible; he’s recently been arguing much the same thing on Debunking Christianity.

The fact the Old Testament appears to endorse the keeping of other human beings as slaves is a problem for Christians. It’s a problem compounded by the fact that Jesus in Luke 12.47-48 and the imposter-Paul, in Ephesians 6.5, both support the practice. How can it be that God approves, or at least raises no objection to it? Wouldn’t an omniscient, all-loving God have outlawed slavery, as he outlaws so much else, in one of his innumerable laws and commandments?

Instead, he provides instructions about how to keep and look after slaves; what to do, for example, when you flog one to within an inch of his life so that he later dies (Exodus 21.20-21) or when you deliberately blind your slave – she’s your property after all – or rape her (Exodus 21.26; Numbers 31.17-18).

Don’s answer is that, despite God involving himself in the minutiae of slave treatment, he knew it would be a waste of time telling his people slavery was wrong. Why? Because he took the trouble to tell them lying and stealing were wrong and yet they ignored him. So, hey, why should he bother telling them about slavery? They’d just ignore that too.

But the point is – disregarding the fact that not everyone steals and lies – ‘God’ did issue laws prohibiting stealing and lying (and eating shellfish, and wearing garments of mixed fabric). It seems it was important to him to tell his pet-tribe that these were wrong, even though he must have known many of their number, and many more subsequently, would ignore him.

What can we conclude from this? Only this: that God didn’t feel the same way about slavery as he did about lying and stealing, which is why he didn’t bother making even the same token effort for slavery.

Or, and much more likely: the tribes who wrote the laws didn’t think slavery was wrong. In fact, they thought it quite useful to have slaves. Given this utility, they were unlikely to have devised laws prohibiting their ownership. The enslaved themselves no doubt thought differently, but then they didn’t get to write the rules.

We don’t find a commandment prohibiting slavery in the bible because those who wrote it liked having slaves. For this reason too, we find all those inhumane instructions about keeping slaves and what should happen if you maim or kill them.

Of course God didn’t write these laws. People did. And they wrote them according to their understanding of what was moral, fair and legitimate within their own primitive milieu. Thus it was that slavery got a free pass.

Gilead – just a stone’s throw away

Stone3

Ken Ham’s Answers In Genesis thinks it’s okay to stone people. Specifically, your wayward kids. The bible says so and AiG’s Elizabeth Mitchell is eager to defend whatever the bible says, on account of it being ‘God’s Word’. She does warn us that we need to read Deuteronomy 21:18–21, where you’ll find this particular bit of parenting advice, in context, because although the bible is the fallible, eternal, literal word of the Creator of the Universe it needs interpreting, and has to be understood in terms of the time it was written.

The context is of course that Deuteronomy and all of the Old Testament was written by primitive, superstitious bronze-age tribesmen who had the same mentality the Taliban and Isis have today. But this isn’t good enough for ‘Doctor’ Mitchell. No, her context is altogether different; she tells us in an article recently posted on the Answers In Genesis Facebook page that Deuteronomy 21 isn’t talking about children. No, it’s referring to uppity teenagers, which makes it okay. And not just teenagers, but really, really troublesome ones, which makes it doubly okay. These really, really troublesome teenagers are the scourge of society and can be stoned with impunity. The bible says so.

And yet, they’re not. Christians don’t stone awkward family members, thankfully. Perhaps, despite articles like Mitchell’s and others’, Christians don’t really believe the brutality promoted in and by the bible. Mitchell offers no explanation for this inconsistency of belief. Instead, her article peters out with some incoherent rambling about Jesus; the same Jesus who declared his undying support for these brutal, Old Testament laws (Matthew 5.17-19).

I suggested in the comments on Facebook that it doesn’t matter how much one takes context into account, the command of Deuteronomy, that rebellious youths be stoned to death, is utterly indefensible. It is cruel, barbaric and belongs in the past when, presumably, unfortunate young people were actually killed in this way by their families and tribal elders. I suggested morals and standards have evolved for the better since the days when people considered that murder was the best way to deal with youthful bad behaviour.

And for that I was metaphorically stoned myself. How dare you challenge God and his Word! How ridiculous to suggest we have better moral standards today when clearly we are in an immoral abyss worse than any before! Last Days! God’s standards are inviolate and if he says the best way to deal with miscreants is to stone them to death then it is!

The Gilead regime envisaged by Margaret Atwood in The Handmaid’s Tale, where Old Testament sanctions are stringently applied in contemporary society, is closer than we think. People like those who hang around on Answers In Genesis’ Facebook pages, like flies around a corpse, would be more than happy to see the death penalty for those who infringe God’s barbaric laws. They’d be only too willing to throw the first stone, not only at difficult teenagers, but at all the others ‘God’s Word’ says merit the death penalty: couples who have sex when the woman is on her period (Leviticus 18.19); women who are not virgins on their wedding nights (Deuteronomy 22.13-14; 20-21); gay people (Leviticus 20.13); those who work on the Sabbath (Exodus 35.2; Numbers 15.32-36); blasphemers (Leviticus 24.16) and worshippers of other gods (Deuteronomy 13.6-9))

I am not an advocate of censorship but some form of censure is necessary for those who, either in speech or writing, advocate that others be put to death. Calling for the execution of those with whom you disagree or who have different moral codes cannot – must not – be tolerated in a civilised society. Pronouncements like those of Elizabeth Mitchell, her supporters and other religious crackpots who defend the indefensible, should be flagged up as hate speech, carrying a warning that the views expressed are themselves immoral, insupportable and, ultimately, illegal in civilised society. Ideally, their poisonous rhetoric should not be provided with an online platform. This wouldn’t, before anyone suggests otherwise, violate their right to free speech; they would still be free to express their unpalatable views in their churches, Creation Museums and own homes. Excluding them from Twitter, Facebook and YouTube, however, would deprive them of their wider audience – they’re only showing off, after all – and confine their hateful rhetoric to where it can do least harm.

These people are not merely ‘causing offence’ – offence is not the issue. They are inciting violence against others, influencing fellow believers to adopt their repellant views as their own. The standards of bronze-age tribes are not ours today; those who think they are abuse free speech and forfeit their right to be heard publicly.

 

 

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.

 

The disciples would not have died for a lie (part two)

Rule

As we have seen, the available evidence does not support the idea that Jesus’ original followers subscribed to a miraculous physical resurrection. It suggests instead that their beliefs centred on the promises Jesus had made about returning from heaven as ‘the Son of Man’ to establish God’s Kingdom on Earth, which they would then rule with him.

Elements of this promise survive in the gospels as we have them, even if there are, in all four, obvious concessions to Paul’s Christ figure; the gospels were, after all, written after Paul’s version of Christianity had begun to take hold. Significantly, the promise of the triumphant appearance of the Son of Man ‘within this generation’ is present in Q, the source of many of the sayings common to both Matthew and Luke’s gospels that they didn’t get from Mark. It’s also there in the sources (L and M) peculiar to each of the gospels. Obviously L, M and Q pre-date the gospels that later made use of them. Scholars think Q could have been written as early as 40CE, a few years after Jesus’ death, with some sayings earlier than that. It pre-dates Paul too and reflects a tradition that has nothing to do with him or his convoluted theology.

Q, in fact, has no sayings attributed to the resurrected Jesus, nor anything from his trial, the crucifixion or resurrection.1 How can that be? Were they not important to the early believers who compiled it? The answer can only be, no, they weren’t. For the creators of Q what mattered was what Jesus said – his ethical teaching and his promise to return as the Son of Man, within his hearers’ lifetime, to inaugurate the Kingdom of God on Earth in which the disciples would reign alongside him (Matthew 19:28). To be part of this Kingdom, people had to become righteous, not have it gifted to them (Matthew 5.20 & 48). This was the ‘good news’ for Jesus’ earliest followers, the gospel as it is preserved in the Q source.2 The lie that the disciples were to rule the world with Jesus inspired them to spread the news of the coming Kingdom; they demonstrate little interest in a reanimated dead man or a magical salvation formula.

So, did the disciples die for their faith in the Risen Jesus? Highly unlikely. They don’t seem, despite the later stories in which they feature, to attach any importance, at least in Q, to visions of a resurrected god-man.

How did they die, then? The simple answer is that, for most of them, we don’t know. They could have met their end when the original church community in Jerusalem was annihilated by the Romans in 70CE. The Romans didn’t particularly care what a minority group of fanatics believed – they were rebellious Jews who needed to be taught a lesson.

If not slaughtered by Romans in their capture of Jerusalem, then perhaps the disciples died for their seditious belief in the imminent arrival of the Kingdom of God, just as Jesus had before them. The Bible records the deaths of only two of them: Judas, who appears to have committed suicide using two different methods depending on which account you believe (Matthew 27:5-8 or Acts 1:18-19), and James, brother of John, who, according to Acts 12.1-2 was executed by Herod Agrippa 1. By the time Acts was written, however, somewhere between 80-90CE, the beliefs of the original followers had been swallowed up by Paul’s alternate version of the faith; we have no way of knowing how accurate the report of James’ death is. It’s hard to believe it was merely because he thought an old pal had risen from the dead. It is hard to believe this of any of them. For the other disciples there are only traditional accounts of how they died ‘for their faith’ with nothing to corroborate these legends.

It is quite possible Jesus’ original followers died for reasons unconnected with their outlandish beliefs in an imminent supernatural kingdom. They could just as easily have died of natural causes. One thing seems probable – they did not die because they believed in a resurrected Messiah. It’s not that they didn’t believe in a physical resurrection – they did – but they were convinced it would only happen with the arrival of God’s Kingdom on Earth, as prophesied in Daniel 12.1-4.

That it had already happened to their former leader did not figure in their beliefs, their writing or even their thinking.

 

 

1 Bart D. Ehrman, Jesus Before the Gospels, p279-280

2 ‘But for Q, Jesus was indeed principally remembered as a teacher of great wisdom and high moral demands, as an apocalyptic prophet anticipating the imminent end of the age, and one whose miraculous activities showed that the day of judgement was soon to come. For the author of Q, Jesus’ teachings provided the goal of the Christian life. Followers of Jesus are those who adhere to his directives for how to live, in anticipation of the coming kingdom of God.’ Bart. D. Ehrman, Jesus Before the Gospels, p280

Updated to include link to Matthew Ferguson’s celsus blog.

 

 

 

The disciples would not have died for a lie (part one)

SonOfMan

The disciples would not have died for a lie, or so Christians like to argue.

Would they not?

Fanatics today do and it is more than likely the disciples believed their lie was true, if indeed they died for it at all. There’s not much evidence that they did. But if they did, maybe the lie they believed to be true was not the one today’s Christians think it was.

There is no evidence anywhere that Jesus’ original followers were martyred because of their faith in a physically resurrected Jesus – for their beliefs, maybe, but not necessarily because they believed Jesus had returned in bodily form from the dead. On the contrary, the evidence suggests that they holed up in Jerusalem to await his return through the clouds as the Son of Man, with a phalanx of hostile angels by his side (Heaven was, after all, just on the other side of those clouds). This was the crux of their beliefs.

How do we know?

There was significant tension between the disciples and Paul, which Paul himself relates, not only because he was convinced his message should be taken to the Gentiles but because of the very nature of that message. Paul and the disciples meant different things by ‘the gospel’. Paul’s irritation that others were preaching a different gospel is apparent in 2 Corinthians 11 & 12 where he calls the original disciples, ‘false apostles, deceitful workers, disguising themselves as apostles of Christ’ and bitterly refers to them as ‘the most eminent apostles’. He is arrogant enough to suppose, and to proclaim, that he has it right and they are wrong.

Paul’s good news was about the resurrected Christ of his visions, who magically made those who put their faith in him righteous in God’s eyes. As he puts it in 2 Corinthians 5:21, ‘God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.’ Paul also believed this supernatural being would soon descend from the skies when he would give believers new bodies (Philippians 3.20) but this is a very different figure, and agenda, from the Jesus known to the disciples.

What then of Paul’s insistence, in 1 Corinthians 15.5 (written circa 55CE), that ‘the Twelve’ experienced the Risen Christ in much the same way he did? Firstly, of course, we have only Paul’s word for this. We have no first-hand corroboration (just the opposite in fact) and Paul had a vested interest in showing how significant his own experiences were. What better way to do so than by claiming Jesus’ original followers had had the same sort of hallucinations? Secondly, we don’t know what these ‘visions’, if they had them, meant to the disciples. Their belief would undoubtedly have been in a physical, bodily resurrection (cf: Daniel 2.12; Matthew 27.52), not in the beam-of-light manifestation of hallucination; this was much more Paul’s thing. Perhaps this is why any words uttered by vision-Jesus (for surely he would have spoken to his old chums) were not considered significant enough to be included in the earliest written record, ‘Q’.

The fully-realised resurrection appearances found in the gospels, then, in which Jesus declaims ‘blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed’ and ‘go and make disciples of all nations,’ are very clearly later developments, based, not on Q but on the visions suffered by Paul and others of influence and ‘written back’ into the gospel accounts.

Despite claiming that the Twelve experienced the Risen Christ in much the same way he did, Paul is critical of the disciples for preaching a different gospel, a different Jesus even, from the magical salvation-formula gospel he expounds. So what did the disciples believe – what was this other gospel that Paul disparaged so much?

We’ll see next time.

 

 

How not to love your neighbour

preachersImagine: a group of health-fascists set themselves up on a soap box in the city centre from where they lambaste everyone going past, with language that is abusive and demeaning, about the poor state of their health, their out-of-condition bodies and that many of them are  significantly over-weight. But, the speakers insist, a bottle of a magic potion they just happen to be selling will solve all their health problems overnight! All anyone has to do is commit to swallowing some every day for the rest of their lives.

Unsurprisingly, people are upset about this; they’ve come to town for all sorts of reasons, but not to be lectured about their health and size, which, for most of them are both perfectly fine. Some of these folk challenge the snake-oil salesmen, shouting back at them (not having the benefit of a tannoy system) and demanding to know what gives them the right to harass passers-by. In response, one of the salesmen pulls out a copy of last Tuesday’s Daily Mail; ‘it’s all in here,’ he declares, ‘all in black and white, and we believe it. The Daily Mail wouldn’t lie to us. Its Word is Truth. So get your magic potion now before it’s too late, ya depraved, ignorant slobs!’

Acceptable or not?

While you think about – if you even need to – the picture above was intended to accompany the previous post. It shows street preachers Michael Overd, Michael Stockwell and Adrian Clark before their trial for ‘public order offences’, which started last week and concluded on Tuesday this week. I felt it couldn’t be used while the trial was ongoing (contempt of court and all that) and so had it replaced with one of rabid American nutcase Franklin Graham.

Two of the three preachers, Overd and Stockwell, were found guilty and fined. Naturally, there’s an outcry from Christians and assorted fruitcakes everywhere about how the two have been denied their freedom of speech (though there is no protection of free speech under UK law) and how – oh calamity! – it’s no longer possible to ‘preach the gospel’ in the Britain. Absolute nonsense, of course, and while some more liberal commentators feel the case should never have reached the courts (let the nutjobs condemn themselves by spouting in the streets, suggests one) an example has been made of people who think the way to show love for your neighbour is setting out, in the judge’s words, to ‘insult, humiliate, demean (and) belittle’ them in public using a loud speaker in a shopping centre.

As Andrew Calibre pointed out in the previous post, haranguing and provoking people like this has nothing to do with love, nor is it ‘the gospel’. Shouting, as Overd did, about how your neighbour is ‘depraved and ignorant’ and how those who have sex outside marriage and gay people (of course) are ‘filthy, depraved and perverted’ is not, by any stretch of the imagination, ‘the good news’.

Perhaps the confusion is understandable when the Bible and God’s people™ are so muddled themselves about what ‘the good news’ actually is; God’s Kingdom arriving on Earth, as Jesus seems to have thought? Paul’s magical salvation formula? Or maybe it’s that there’s a free pass to heaven? One thing’s for sure, verbally abusing your neighbours and other strangers it isn’t. Even if street preachers justify their arrogance and rudeness by claiming they’re only conveying what (they think) the Bible says – so what? Their tawdry little book has no more authority than any other collection of ancient (or modern) fantasy, prejudice and supposition.

So, no, it’s not acceptable that hypothetical, self-appointed health experts verbally abuse strangers in the street. And as the court ruled this week, nor is it when religious zealots do the same. Passers-by and by-standers have every right to feel irritated, annoyed and offended, just as Christians would be if a group of Muslims propounded their beliefs with the same aggression, informing all and sundry how wicked they are and how they are destined to spend eternity in whatever hell Islam envisages. Nor would ‘we’re only preaching what the Qu’ran teaches’ be any justification.

But the issue isn’t only the irritation that people feel when religious extremists abuse them. It’s the one in a hundred, or whatever the percentage is, who takes them seriously, accepts the confederate’s tract, shows interest and is ultimately sucked into one of the many versions of the mind-numbing Jesus cult. Far worse than selling people magic potions, or insurance they don’t need, there is something obscene about cranks taking to the streets to recruit the gullible and unsuspecting to their (lost) cause. We wouldn’t tolerate it if it were anything other than religion, why should we accept it when it is? The prosecution of presumptuous con-artists does us all a service.