No Sign of Life

For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance, that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures. (1 Corinthians 1:4)

This, apparently, is what early Christians believed; Paul is thought to be quoting an early creed here. What an incredible statement it is. Incredible because of its demonstrable falsity.

Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures’: just where, in which scriptures, does it say this? Presumably Paul, or those he’s quoting, thinks it’s Isaiah 53, where it says:

…the Lord was willing to crush (his servant), and he made him suffer. Although you make his soul an offering for sin, he will see his offspring, and he will prolong his days, and the will of the Lord will triumph in his hand. ‘the Lord makes his life an offering for sin’ (Isaiah 53:10)

Unfortunately for Paul, most scholars agree that Isaiah 53 is not about the Messiah at all, but about the Jewish nation. It looks as if it neatly fits the much later ‘Christ’ because the Christ is a construct built on a handful of believers’ visions and this very chapter, which seemed, but only superficially, to validate their inner experiences.

Paul goes on to say, ‘he (Christ) was buried (and) was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures. Here he is on even shakier ground. The Messiah was not going to die for his people – he would be a triumphant warrior king – and he certainly wasn’t predicted to rise from the dead. There are no references at all, anywhere in the Scriptures, to the Messiah being raised from the dead and certainly not ‘on the third day’. Paul is wrong. At best, he’s mistaken, at worst he’s deliberately perpetuating a falsehood.

When Paul wrote this, the gospels were still many years away from being written. All that new believers, in as faraway a place as Corinth, could rely on was the testimony of preachers who came to tell them about the Christ. Some of these preachers may have known Jesus personally (though I doubt it) but most, like Paul, had limited means of persuading those they aimed to convert that Jesus had died for their sins and had risen again. Not unlike today’s evangelists, all they offered was their own and others’ inner spiritual experiences and visions, together with ‘evidence’ from scripture. Paul admits this is all he’s offering here: ‘what I received’ and ‘according to scripture’. But there is no evidence from the scripture available at that time.

What’s a gospel writer to do? When Mark created his gospel, he undoubtedly knew of Paul’s teaching about the resurrection and he may have known of this early creed. Yet he knew also that there was no prophecy about Jesus rising ‘on the third day’, on which to build his story. Consequently, he has Jesus declare in Mark 8:12 that ‘no sign will be given’ (= ‘there’s nothing in the scriptures about this’) and he omits the resurrection from his story.

Not so Matthew. As is his way, Matthew scoured Jewish scripture till he alighted, in the absence of anything resembling a prophecy, on the story of Jonah. Jonah 1.17 claims preposterously that this ancient prophet spent ‘three days and three nights’ in the belly of a great fish – and Matthew decided, ‘that’ll do!’. He has his Jesus refer to the tall tale as a ‘sign’ that he too will spend three days and nights in the belly of the earth:

Then some of the scribes and Pharisees told Jesus, “Teacher, we want to see a sign from you.” But he replied to them, “An evil and adulterous generation craves a sign. Yet no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah, because just as Jonah was in the stomach of the sea creature for three days and three nights, so the Son of Man will be in the heart of the earth for three days and three nights…” (Matthew 12:38-40)

Contradicting Mark’s Jesus (‘no sign will be given’), Matthew also modifies the original belief that Jesus rose on the third day. Now it’s after ‘three days and three nights’, which does not mean the same as ‘on the third day’. According to Matthew’s own gospel, Jesus was in the tomb – the belly of the earth? Really? – from Friday ‘as the evening approached’ (Matthew 27:57) till before dawn on Sunday morning (Matthew 28:1). This only just qualifies as being ‘on the third day’, given that days are counted from evening to evening in the Jewish calendar; it certainly isn’t ‘three days and nights’. Jesus lay dead in the tomb for no more than 36 hours. The damn ‘sign’ Matthew is so eager to use doesn’t even fit his own story.

What a mess. It’s what you get when you lift any old tall tale from ancient scripture and use it as a symbol for your own made-up story.

This time it’s personal

Desperately searching for another reason to dismiss recent critiques of Christianity, Don has suggested that my views and those of commenters here are somehow invalid because they’re ‘personal’. (I declined to publish Don’s latest comment in which he elaborated on this theme; not only was he already on enforced rest but he also decided to have a rant about ‘sexual depravity’. This would appear to have been directed  at my own happy same-sex relationship, as well as all other forms of consensual sex that God Don disapproves of.)

So what’s wrong with ‘personal’? My faith, when I had it was personal. I’d prayed the sinner’s prayer in which I confessed I was a sinner and I received Jesus into my heart (or so I thought) and began to live my life in accordance with what he required of me. This personal relationship with Jesus, as it was usually described in evangelical circles, was reinforced by the preaching I heard in church, by prayer meetings and Bible studies, by the devotional books I read, C. S. Lewis’s writing and the notes I used alongside my personal Bible reading.

I’ve written before how I abandoned all of this when, in a time of crisis, God wasn’t there, and I eventually came to realise, in what I can only describe as a moment of personal revelation, that this was because he didn’t exist.

I then set about discovering what it was I had believed for the previous 30 years; what were these beliefs that had shaped my life, determining what I did, who I married, my morality, my sense of guilt and failure… essentially all that I was. That quest, which began with my broadening my reading well beyond the bounds of devotional Christian books (how treacherous I felt when I first picked them up!) was personal. It was fuelled by the reaction of some Christian friends who attacked me personally when, still later, I came out not only as an atheist but as gay too. My dealings with one particular zealous and homophobic friend led to my first book and ultimately, over 12 years ago, to this blog.

RejectingJesus is a personal working out of my love-hate relationship with Christianity. It is, I hope, informed by my reading but it is first and foremost personal. The posts are my analysis of Christianity as it is practised and my own dissection of the Bible. I’m not a historian nor a theologian (thank god); my Masters is in English Literary Research and it is these skills, together with my knowledge of the Bible from my Christian days, that I apply in my sometimes irreverent analyses. Nothing is sacred, though I’m aware of the importance of providing evidence for my claims and, where relevant, in citing appropriate sources, which is why I provide links and reference relevant verses from the Bible. Perversely, Don also accuses me of being in thrall to the scholars I cite; the opposite of his complaint that posts are ‘personal’.

Do I then, as Don implies, try to discredit the Bible because I’m gay? Am I, as Don suggests, motivated by the ‘constraints’ the Bible places on my sexuality? I don’t believe so. Once I recognised that God didn’t exist, it followed that he could not have any opinion about homosexuality or indeed anything else. Like any other fictional character, his views were created by those who presumed to speak for him: ‘I am so mysterious and my ways unknowable. Oh, but by the way, I really don’t like those depraved gays. Feel at liberty to stone them.’ God’s self-appointed homophobes have to be challenged because of the damage they do.

Am I as an atheist predisposed to being critical of both faith and the Bible, as Christian readers sometimes say? Undoubtedly, but I’m no more predisposed than as a Christian I was predisposed to see God everywhere. As Nan put it in a recent comment:

Any individual who allows him/herself to put aside the centuries-long teachings of Christianity … and read the scriptures without bias and/or preconception … cannot fail to see the multitude of inconsistencies.

Nor can they fail to see the Bible’s flights of fancy, its reliance on dreams and visions, its make-believe and pretend fulfilment of prophecy, its forgeries and false promises, its disconnect from reality and magical thinking, its supernaturalism and sheer cultishness. Critically evaluating scriptures at face value, without making excuses for them or trying to guessing what the original writers might have ‘intended’ or deciding that unpalatable parts are ‘really’ symbolic/metaphorical is, however ‘personal’, by far the more honest approach.

To insinuate with a personal slur that having ‘personal’ reasons for criticising Christianity is a weak ad hominem. It does not address the arguments in question nor the issues at hand. Anyone who wants to demonstrate that what I say about the Bible, Christian belief and practice is wrong needs to provide evidence of their own. Insult, screeds of Bible quotation and ‘a legion of “work arounds”’ (Nan again) is not how to go about it.

 

Cruci-fiction

Given the birth, baptism and wilderness narratives are fiction, why not then the other parts of Mark and Matthew? We’ve already seen how the trial and crucifixion in Mark are literary creations, which Matthew lifts and embellishes. The resurrection stories are also invented, which is why the different accounts are confused and contradictory. The likelihood that everything between the beginning and the end – Jesus’ ‘ministry’, miracles and preaching – is invented too, either by the authors of the gospels themselves or by those who preceded them. My money would be on the former; the stories are so carefully arranged, forming an integral part of a clever literary construct.

I have a growing, sneaking admiration for what Mark and Matthew, and later Luke and John, achieved. They consciously set about creating myth. When Paul and others preached that their Christ had died and risen again ‘according to the scriptures’ that’s literally what they meant; the Christ was discernible in Jewish scripture, his story laid out there for those with eyes to see it. Mark tells us as much in Mark 4:9: ‘He who has ears to hear, let him hear.’

What he and, to an even greater extent, Matthew did, was construct a Saviour story from these elements. They saw him, or thought they did, all over the place. Whether or not they’re was an actual Jesus is beside the point. as is the extent to which the gospel writers may have used existing stories about him. Gospel Jesus is their imaginative creation from start to finish. His life, deeds and many of his sayings are put together by cutting and pasting scripture.

Cite any episode in Mark and Matthew’s gospels and it will have a precedent in scripture, either a prophecy (that invariably isn’t a prophecy) or episode (that was never about a future suffering Messiah) or character (usually legendary in their own right.) You can believe, as many True Believers do, that these ‘Old Testament’ episodes foreshadow the events of Jesus’ life. That he miraculously fulfilled prophecy through everything he did and said while here on Earth. Or you can take the view that doesn’t rely on faith in the miraculous, and recognise that he’s merely written that way. He’s the literary embodiment of scattered scraps of scripture.

On this much more realistic view, everything Jesus is made to do, particularly his miracles and crucifixion, is symbolic; a fictional enactment of scripture. Other aspects are drawn from Paul (the Last Supper/Eucharist, for example), claims of inner-visions (the resurrection) and early cult rules (behavioural expectations.) The events of Jesus’ earthly existence, as created by the gospel writers, have no historical basis; they didn’t really happen. I maintain that all of the gospel writers were fully cognisant of this as they created their respective symbolic lives for him.

Making Prophecy Work

Recycled image and still no second coming

Never one to belabour a point, Don Camp has responded to my posts and comments about prophecy over on his own blog, Biblical Musing. This is a modified version of my response to that post.

What you seem to be saying, Don, is ‘leave a selected prophecy long enough and eventually it’ll appear to come true’. Perhaps, but then, if you take any selection of predictions from any source and you’ll find this to be the case. Why? Because:

1) You’ll have cherry-picked from the start so only those ‘prophecies’ that are vague enough or appear to have been fulfilled already will make up the bulk of your selection.

2) The vagueness of many that are chosen will make it relatively easy to scout around and alight on circumstances that seem to demonstrate some sort of fulfilment. You may even invent some that do, like the synoptic gospel writers do.

3) Some prophecies will indeed come true, but at no greater rate than chance allows. A prophecy you cite may say a particular city state will fall and return to the wilderness from which it was built. To claim that when, centuries later, it does so is not a fulfilment of this prophecy; it is a happy coincidence (for you and your so-called prophet, not so much for the denizens of the city state.) Just look at the number of ancient cities to which this has happened, without there being a preceding ‘prophecy’. It just happens.

4) You’ll ignore your own failure rate, or explain it away: i) discounting those prophecies that have never come to pass, even after millennia; ii) insisting ‘they could still occur! With God a day is like a thousand years!’; iii) reinterpreting them: ‘they’re metaphorical’ etc.

5) You invoke the get-out clause; the god says ‘if you don’t do ‘x’ then I’ll make ‘y’ happen.’ “Well, praise the god, everyone did ‘x’ and the calamity was averted! It’s a miracle!” This then counts, somehow or other, as a win for the ‘prophecy’.

These are your strategies, Don. You use them in combination to demonstrate the ‘fulfilment’ of biblical prophecy. You work really hard at nullifying your own cognitive dissonance, desperately attempting to demonstrate the truth of ancient fantasies. You conclude your post by saying Jesus will return as King soon. No, he won’t. You need to apply every one of your strategies to believe this is ever going to happen.

Prophecy: The Bible’s Track Record

In earlier posts we saw how the authors of Mark and Matthew’s gospels rooted around in the scriptures for anything that might be passed off as a prophecy. They then turned what they found into stories about Jesus.

What though about passages in scripture that actually declare themselves to be prophecy? How do these fair in the fulfilment stakes? As you might guess, not well. There are many failed prophecies in both Testaments; here I’ll take a select few, just to give you a flavour of how hopeless they are:

In Exodus 23:27, YHWH declares that all of Israel’s enemies will run from them:

I will send my terror ahead of you and throw into confusion every nation you encounter. I will make all your enemies turn their backs and run.

Oops! The scriptures themselves are replete with examples of the Israelites’ defeat at the hands of their enemies.

In Ezekiel 29:8-12, the Lord proclaims his intentions towards the hated Egyptians:

The Nile is mine; I made it, therefore I am against you and against your streams, and I will make the land of Egypt a ruin and a desolate waste from Migdol to Aswan, as far as the border of Cush. The foot of neither man nor beast will pass through it; no one will live there for forty years. I will make the land of Egypt desolate among devastated lands, and her cities will lie desolate forty years among ruined cities. And I will disperse the Egyptians among the nations and scatter them through the countries.

None of this ever happened.

Isaiah has it in for Egypt too. In 19:1-8 the Lord promises:

The waters of the river will dry up, and the riverbed will be parched and dry. The canals will stink; the streams of Egypt will dwindle and dry up. The reeds and rushes will wither, also the plants along the Nile, at the mouth of the river. Every sown field along the Nile will become parched, will blow away and be no more. The fishermen will groan and lament, all who cast hooks into the Nile; those who throw nets on the water will pine away.

The Nile has never dried up.

In 2 Samuel 7:13-16, the Lord promises that the descendants of David will rule forever:

(David) is the one who will build a house for my Name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever… Your house and your kingdom will endure forever before me; your throne will be established forever.

The Davidic line ended with King Zedekiah in about 586BC. Much is made in the New Testament of Jesus’ descent from David on his father’s side (while also insisting he didn’t have a human father!) and this prophecy is altered in Acts 2:29-31 to make it fit Jesus’ supposed kingship. This is neither what it says nor means in its original context.

The deranged Zephaniah, writing in the 7th century BC, prophesies that the end of the world is imminent:

The great day of the Lord is near – near and coming quickly. The cry on the day of the Lord is bitter; the Mighty Warrior shouts his battle cry. That day will be a day of wrath – a day of distress and anguish, a day of trouble and ruin, a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and blackness – a day of trumpet and battle cry against the fortified cities and against the corner towers.

Another failure, unless you’re prepared to consider 2600+ years and counting as being ‘near and coming quickly’.

The earliest prediction we have of the Christ’s appearance on Earth is from Paul, in 1 Thessalonians 1-8. You’ll note how he says how everything he describes will happen soon to the people he is writing to:

Now, brothers and sisters, about times and dates we do not need to write to you, for you know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. While people are saying, “Peace and safety,” destruction will come on them suddenly, as labour pains on a pregnant woman, and they will not escape. But you, brothers and sisters, are not in darkness so that this day should surprise you like a thief. You are all children of the light and children of the day. We do not belong to the night or to the darkness. So then, let us not be like others, who are asleep, but let us be awake and sober… For God did not appoint us to suffer wrath but to receive salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ. He died for us so that, whether we are awake or asleep, we may live together with him.

Notch that up as another non-event.

How about the prediction in 2 Thessalonians 2:1-4, thought to have been written circa AD50, that the Christ will not appear from heaven until ‘the man of lawlessness’ takes up residence in the Temple?

Concerning the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our being gathered to him, we ask you, brothers and sisters, not to become easily unsettled or alarmed by the teaching allegedly from us – whether by a prophecy or by word of mouth or by letter – asserting that the day of the Lord has already come. Don’t let anyone deceive you in any way, for that day will not come until the rebellion occurs and the man of lawlessness is revealed, the man doomed to destruction. He will oppose and will exalt himself over everything that is called God or is worshiped, so that he sets himself up in God’s temple, proclaiming himself to be God.

The Temple was destroyed by the Romans in AD70 before the man of lawlessness could make his appearance. Unsurprisingly, not a single prophet foresaw the catastrophe. (No, not even Jesus. It is generally agreed that Mark’s gospel was written around AD70 and that Jesus’ ‘prophecy’ about the temple’s destruction was composed after it had happened.)

And then, finally, prophecies about the end times, whether from the scriptures or from Paul, are inserted into the synoptic gospels so, miraculously, they become the words of Jesus:

‘the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light; the stars will fall from the sky, and the heavenly bodies will be shaken.’ (a quote from Isaiah 13:10; 34:4.) At that time people will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory. And he will send his angels and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of the heavens. Now learn this lesson from the fig tree: As soon as its twigs get tender and its leaves come out, you know that summer is near. Even so, when you see these things happening, you know that it is near, right at the door. Truly I tell you, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away (Mark 13.34).

And thus, Jesus is likewise made into a false prophet.

Then again, what other sort is there? Prophets are zealots who believe they’ve been granted special access to the Lord’s plans. There are still fantasists today who believe the Lord speaks to them with portents of future disaster. It would be generous to say that all of them – those in the Bible and their modern descendants – are wrong far more often than they are right. In fact, they are always wrong; it is impossible to know the future. Meanwhile, so-called interpreters of prophecy, like Matthew, Mark, Luke and their equivalents today, alter ‘prophecy’ and unrelated statements to suit their needs, shaping their stories to create the illusion they have been miraculously ‘fulfilled’.  

Where did Luke get his Bethlehem story from?

Previously on RejectingJesus:

Matthew creates his nativity story, specifically Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem, from Micah 5.2, which prophesies that a ‘ruler over Israel’ will be born there. This prophecy is imposed on Jesus who was not a ruler of Israel – though he may have aspired to be – and certainly was not the Messiah envisaged by the creators of such prophecies. I suggest that subsequently, Luke embroidered Matthew’s fairly basic story and contrived to get Jesus born in Bethlehem by inventing a Roman census that required his parents to travel there.

A Christian commenter (let’s call him Don) then challenged this scenario by claiming, without offering any evidence, that Luke did not have access to Matthew’s gospel, so must have known that Jesus was born in Bethlehem from an independent source. (Christians are fond of attributing suspect gospel material to oral traditions and the hypothetical Q. Don is no exception.)

In fact, a number of scholars, including Michael Goulder, Mark Goodacre, Richard Carrier and others, think that Luke did know Matthew’s gospel. This is the so-called Farrer hypothesis, named after Austin Farrer who first proposed the idea in 1955. As well as his plagiarising 55% of Mark, these scholars show that Luke also used material from Matthew, including the Bethlehem story. The structure of Luke’s version and some of his phrasing is identical to Matthew’s. It is unlikely this would be the case if Luke wasn’t lifting directly from Matthew’s account.

Luke goes further and replaces some of the details in Matthew’s story that don’t suit his purpose (e.g. the magi) with his own (the shepherds), which is why the two accounts diverge. Nonetheless, both versions of the story stem from the ‘prophecy’ in Micah 2.5. Luke doesn’t cite it explicitly but then he is non-specific elsewhere in his gospel about events that supposedly fulfil prophecy. Unlike Matthew, Luke was writing for a gentile audience who would not be as familiar with Jewish scripture; he didn’t need to be as explicit about the source for his stories that were based on these scriptures. Nonetheless, the two nativity accounts, Matthew’s and Luke’s, likely had the same basis (the Micah prophecy) with Luke adapting the narrative that Matthew had already created from it. Moreover, the differences in detail between Matthew and Luke’s accounts demonstrate clearly that both authors were inventing their respective stories. As Neil Godfrey puts it,

Luke, attempting to adapt Matthew’s Bethlehem as the place of birth of Jesus to his more universalist theme, feels obliged to concoct a silly story of everyone being required by imperial edict to return to their places of birth for a special tax registration. Not to mention the necessary anachronism of his Quirinius timing, too. It is not hard to see that Luke is struggling to incorporate Matthew’s Bethlehem setting into his own tendentious narrative.

It’s possible, of course, that all of the scholars who think Luke knew Mathew’s gospel are wrong, but even so, this doesn’t rescue Luke’s nativity from its fictional moorings.

First, it could be argued that both Matthew and Luke knew about Jesus’ birth from their respective sources. Our Christian commenter would say, and does say, that the details of Jesus’s birth were well known in the early, pre-gospel cult (he disputes that Jesus was in any way famous beyond this select few) and that these details were preserved in a reliable oral tradition or in Q. If the former was the case, however, the two nativity accounts would not differ to the extent they do, unless the oral traditions weren’t as reliable as our commenter likes to say they were. On the other hand, Q, if it existed at all, was comprised primarily of sayings and certainly did not include any Bethlehem narrative.

Second, Don will no doubt say that all of this is mere atheist grumbling and is therefore entirely fallacious. He believes that God inspired his anonymous agents to use prophecy, foreshadowing and typology to point the way to Jesus and his birth in Bethlehem. Don believes that both Matthew and Luke had independent knowledge of Jesus’ birth there, which means it must’ve been his birthplace. Of course it indicates nothing of the sort. If Matthew and Luke settled on Bethlehem independently, it would demonstrate only that they had independent knowledge of Micah 2.5.

Third, if the circumstances of Jesus birth in Bethlehem were so remarkable – miraculous, even – then why does Mark not mention them? According to Don (though no serious scholar shares his view) Mark’s gospel is comprised of the recollections of Peter, Jesus’ closest, dim-witted pal in the synoptic gospels. Did Jesus never mention his birth to Peter? Did Peter then fail to pass the details on to Mark? Did Jesus’ mother Mary, who treasured memories of the miraculous birth, never allude to them when she and Peter reminisced together over a glass of water wine? (Yes, Don, I know this is in John’s gospel, but they are meant to be the same characters.) Why does the Bethlehem birth only emerge in Matthew, who built much of his gospel around ‘prophecies’ from scripture, and in Luke, who, in all likelihood, copied from him?

We can be fairly certain that Jesus was not born in Bethlehem. Someone somewhere, other than these two, would have mentioned it outside of symbolic stories that owe far more to myth and legend than they do to fact.

More Matthew Make-Believe

Don Camp and other Christians contest that Matthew’s gospel was constructed by snippets from the Old Testament. Those snippets, they say, however unrelated to the use to which Matthew puts them, are prophecies about Jesus, written centuries before his birth. This is the direction of travel: from ancient text to fulfilment in the first century. They refuse to see that for random verses in the scriptures to foreshadow later events involves significant amounts of magic.

Don talks about the bible authors’ use of foreshadowing, which is a recognised technique in literature. A single author in control of their text from start to finish can plant hints early in the narrative that only come to fruition much later on. Don cites Neil Gaiman’s use of the technique, but then equates the use of foreshadowing by a single author over the restricted amount of time it takes to complete a novel, to its apparent use in the bible. But there’s no equivalence. Yes, the bible is largely fiction too, but that’s where similarities end. In the case of the bible, we have to believe that over many, many years, multiple authors set about planting clues – prophecies – for events that would not occur until centuries later. But this just doesn’t work; not without a controlling agent, like a single author who creates and manages the entire narrative. Of course, Don believes that as far as the bible is concerned, that single author is YHWH. He’s not alone in this wishful thinking; there is a whole industry dedicated to arguing that God controlled the subconscious of everyone who contributed to the biblical texts.

But this scenario makes no sense. In the first instance because many of the so called prophecies are nothing of the sort. As we’ve seen, some are random lines in a story about something else entirely. Lets’ look at another example of that, again from Matthew’s gospel:   

In Hosea 11.1 YHWH is being made to boast about how he rescued the Israelites from Egypt:

When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son.

God’s ‘son’ in context and as plainly stated, is Israel (note the use of parallelism again.) All the verse is saying is that YHWH brought his son, Israel, out of captivity of Egypt, which is itself a fiction. Nothing more; nothing about the future. Yet years later, Matthew (2.16-18) rewrote the verse as an event in the young Jesus’ life:

So (Joseph) got up, took the child and his mother during the night and left for Egypt,  where he stayed until the death of Herod. And so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet: “Out of Egypt I called my son.”

Matthew expects us to believe that what the Hosea verse really means is that the baby Jesus would flee to Egypt and would be ‘called out’ again only when it was safe. That is, after Herod stopped massacring baby boys, another event that never happened but is itself a rewrite of Exodus 1.22. Only Matthew has this preposterous Egypt story, because only Matthew invented it. Luke simply has Mary & Joseph returning to their home in Nazareth.

Matthew is dishonest on two counts. He knows the original line is not a prophecy and he also knows his fable about the family’s escape to and return from Egypt is not a fulfilment of prophecy. And he knows this because it didn’t happen. He made it up.

Secondly, even if we grant that the bible contains what appear to be more precise prophecies, a God who has engineered their inclusion is mere speculation. One cannot offer up fulfilled prophecy as evidence of that God’s existence and then argue that prophecy comes to be fulfilled only because God is its controlling agent. That is circular reasoning. In any case, most, if not all, of these less indistinct predictions are the very ones that have never been fulfilled. We’ll take a look at some of these next time.

So, which is more likely? A supernatural entity who controls the entire narrative of a collection of books written over centuries, who hides unlikely clues to the future in a select number of verses, or a first century author who plunders ancient scriptures to find snippets that he thinks might parallel his hero, and then rewrites them to furnish his narrative?

An interfering but non-existent God looking forward or a duplicitous author looking back? Even Don knows which it is.

The Meaning Of Matthew’s Mistakes

So Matthew likes quite a lot of what he finds in Mark. Likes it so much he decides to lift over 90% of it into his own Jesus story. Of course he’ll tweak it a bit because, disappointingly, Mark hasn’t emphasised Jesus’ Jewishness enough. That definitely needs bumping up; it’s what his readers will expect. And Mark has missed a trick or two: he starts his story with Jesus’ baptism, when, as everyone knows, every godman needs a magical origin. Just look at Tammuz, Horus, Romulus and, according to some, the Jewish high priest Melchizedek. So Matthew sets about scouring the scriptures for a prophecy or fable, anything really, that hints that the Messiah would have a miraculous birth. And he comes across this in Isaiah (7.14):

Therefore, the Lord, of His own, shall give you a sign; behold, a virgin is with child, and she shall bear a son, and she shall call his name Immanuel.

It’s not really a prophecy about the Messiah as the context makes clear, but that’s okay. There’s enough of a hint that it could be about a future Messiah that it’ll do. So Matthew sets about creating a birth narrative for his godman based on this verse, yanked from its context. His godman is going to have a virgin birth too.

What Matthew doesn’t realise, however, is that he’s made a mistake. He’s picked up the verse in the Septuagint, a Greek translation of the scriptures. If he’d checked, or even been able to read the original Hebrew, he would have soon seen that the verse actually reads:

Therefore, the Lord, of His own, shall give you a sign; behold, the young woman is with child, and she shall bear a son, and she shall call his name Immanuel.

The Hebrew word for ‘young woman’ is alma and that is the word used in Isaiah 7.14. The word for virgin is betulah. It does not appear. The use of it in the Septuagint is a mistake, a mistake that Matthew is not aware of. So he misappropriates the mistranslated verse to create a miraculous birth for Jesus and the myth of his virgin birth is born.

But Matthew hasn’t finished scouring the scriptures for prophecies that appear to be about Jesus. This time he alights on Zechariah 9:9:

Rejoice greatly, Daughter Zion! Shout Daughter Jerusalem! See your king comes to you, righteous and victorious, lowly and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.

Incredibly, this time Matthew has stumbled upon a prophecy about the Jewish Messiah! According to Zechariah, the Messiah-King’s victorious entry into Jerusalem will follow the defeat of his enemies and the establishment of universal peace. Matthew likes the sound of this. If he can shoehorn an episode into his story where Jesus rides into Jerusalem on a donkey, this will show his readers that Jesus really is the long-awaited Messiah-King. Never mind that the Jesus version bears little resemblance to the scenario predicted by Zechariah: Jesus is not an anointed king, he has not recently defeated his enemies nor has he just established universal peace. The only thing the original prophecy and Matthew’s version have in common is that the two principle figures, Zechariah’s Messiah-King and Jesus, ride into Jerusalem on a donkey.

Oh, no, wait. That’s wrong. According to Matthew Jesus approaches on two donkeys; a mother and her colt. He’s made another mistake. He doesn’t know that the use of ‘donkey’ and ‘colt’ in the prophecy refers to the same animal. He thinks there has to be two: a larger one and a smaller one. He is not familiar with the practice of parallelism, common in Jewish writing to emphasise a point by repeating it  but using alternative terminology. There aren’t two animals on which Jesus sits lop-sidedly, there’s one: a donkey, otherwise known as a colt which, to state the bleedin’ obvious, is also the foal of a donkey. Matthew misses all of this and places Jesus precariously on two mismatched animals.

What does this tell us? That Matthew is not describing an actual event. He has, rather, created a story based on a prophecy, designed to illustrate to his readers that Jesus is the Messiah-King prophesied by Zechariah. There is nothing historical about this story; it is an actualisation-in-fiction of a prophecy. A prophecy,  which, incidentally, still has not been fulfilled.

So Matthew is caught out at least twice. There are more examples in his gospel of his forcing an episode from the scriptures into his Jesus fable: other aspects of his birth narrative are clearly based on elements of Moses’ story; Judas’ thirty pieces of silver are based on a story from Zechariah 11, which has no relevance at all to the use he makes of it. There is also evidence that Matthew invented prophecy that he could then show Jesus ‘fulfilling’ (Matthew 2.23, for example.)

What all of this demonstrates is not that Jesus was foreshadowed in the Jewish scriptures, (foreshadowing being a technique beloved of some authors who use it to hint at future events in their fiction) but rather that many aspects of the Jesus story are literary re-imaginings of ‘prophecies’ and often unrelated episodes from the scriptures.

And if some, why not all?

In Which Don Gets It All Back To Front

Let’s take a look at one of Don Camp’s latest contributions regarding the authenticity of the Jesus story and how it was all prophesied beforehand and explained after the fact:

Don: You mean all the Old Testament prophecies that spoke of the eternal continuance of the Messiah king were mistaken?

What prophecies, Don? You mean all those tenuously connected Old Testament stories that the gospel writers, especially Matthew, pressed into service to construct their Jesus stories? That this is how it happened is the scholarly consensus and once we exclude the possibility of magic, the only way ‘prophecy’ can later be ‘fulfilled’.

Don: “After he has suffered he will see the light of life and be satisfied; (Isaiah 53:11).

Which proves my point. You think this is a prophecy? It could mean anything about anyone!

Don: The prophecy about him not seeing corruption as a dead body was mistaken?

And again. Not mistaken: lifted from the OT around which to build the resurrection story.

Don: The words of Jesus as he repeatedly told his disciples of his resurrection were mistaken?

He didn’t. The stories were written long after Jesus supposedly lived. Those who created his story gave him this ‘foreknowledge’ long after the event.

Don: Paul made nothing up; his simply explained what it all meant.

Oh come on, Don. Why would God leave it to someone who’d never met Jesus, and appears to know nothing about him, to explain ‘simply’ what he was all about? Of course Paul made it all up, after he had some sort of vision, in his head, from which he developed a fanciful theology, one that was very much at odds with that put in Jesus’ mouth years later. Hence Paul’s disputes with the ‘pillars of the church’ whom he held in such disdain.

I know you’ll have some convoluted explanation about how everyone else has got it wrong, Don, but it’s you who’s got it all back to front!

The ‘F’ Word

Don Camp is defending Christians in the comments. They’re in the process of becoming ‘more like Jesus’, he says.

What does this even mean, Don? How can you know what Jesus was like when there are so many disparate versions of him in the Bible (as has been pointed out to you)? Does becoming more tempestuous, impatient, impossibly demanding and Jewish count? These are some of the traits his propagandists show him as having.

You then tell Jim not to measure Christians ‘by his (own) experience’. What other measure is there? Christians aggressively promote their beliefs on the internet, have infected politics and, at a lower level, are encountered as judgmental evangelicals and sanctimonious street preachers; these are the Christians of our experience and like it or not, the fragrance ain’ that sweet. As Jesus is supposed to have said, ‘by their fruits shall you know them’. We sure do.

Bottom line, Don: you Christians have had two thousand years now to make the world a better place by being ‘more like Jesus’. On balance, you’ve failed. Not surprising when Jesus himself failed even more. Where is he, Don? Following his ‘return’, the Righteous should have been living in peace and harmony for the past two millennia, tediously worshipping him and his Father in God’s Kingdom on Earth. They haven’t been, even though Jesus, Paul and several other NT writers said they would be ‘soon’, relative to their own lifetimes. 

Argue it how like, Don (and you will), Christianity merits one big ‘F‘.