Making Excuses for Jesus

Excuse 2. When Jesus said ‘Kingdom of God’ what he really meant was ‘the church’.

Kingdom

So if not the transfiguration, then what? Christians can’t accept that Jesus was wrong in all he prophesied, and must invent some other explanation. How about the church – the body of believers who saw, and still see, Jesus as their saviour? The church must be the Kingdom! Yes, that’s it surely.

But then they’re left to explain why the church, even in its early days, bore no resemblance to what Jesus said the Kingdom would look like. Where was the Son of Man descending through the clouds? The hosts of angels in full view of ‘the tribes of the Earth’? The disciples judging and ruling the twelve tribes of Israel (Matt 19.28)? The last becoming first and the first last? The meek inheriting the Earth? The righteous being rewarded for their good deeds, while the unrighteous are sent to outer darkness?

Even if we were to overlook the absence of these characteristics, all of which Jesus predicted would define the Kingdom, then isn’t the-church-as-Kingdom just a tiny bit, well… disappointing? It doesn’t embody either any of the conditions of the Kingdom that the Old Testament prophets promised it would (Micah 4.1-7 & Isaiah 11.6): nations continue to wage war, the lamb and the wolf don’t co-exist peacefully and God singularly fails to rule the earth from Mount Zion.

Instead, the church is all too human, riven with conflict and division. Despite the whitewash given to it by the author of Acts, Paul’s letters – 1 & 2 Corinthians, Romans and Galatians in particular – serve as a permanent reminder of the dispute and strife that have characterised it since its earliest days. It has also a shameful history of persecuting those with whom it disagrees and produces its fair share of criminals and abusers. Today, it is split into 45,000 different factions and, according to some of its own, is awash with ‘false doctrine’.

One thing it is good at – the very thing Paul insists it shouldn’t be (1 Corinthians 5.12) – is judging the rest of us.

The Kingdom of God it is not.

Making excuses for Jesus


Excuse 1. When he said ‘Kingdom of God’, what Jesus really meant was ‘transfiguration’.

Hokum

However it might seem, Jesus’ mission didn’t fail! Absolutely not. Because after he promised those standing in front of him would see God’s Kingdom come in power and glory, the gospels relate how some of the disciples saw Jesus having a friendly chat with Moses and Elijah (Mark 9.1-8 etc). So, say his apologists, this was what he was really referring to; his being visited by two of Judaism’s great figures, on day release from Heaven or having travelled through time or, more probably, having being planted in a story that is pure fabrication. Whichever, this ‘transfiguration’ is regularly hauled out as ‘evidence’ that those standing with Jesus did indeed see him in his Kingdom. (Here, here and here, for example.)

Pastor Bob Deffinbaugh, for example, puts it like this:

Jesus then promised His disciples that some of them would see the “kingdom of God” before they died: “I tell you the truth, some who are standing here will not taste death before they see the kingdom of God (Luke 9.27). While there are numerous explanations as to what Jesus’ words here mean, the simplest explanation, especially in the context, is that Jesus was foretelling the transfiguration which was to come within a week’s time.

But this cannot be ‘the simplest explanation’ because it doesn’t fit any of what Jesus said the Kingdom would be like. Here’s his description as it appears in Matthew 24.29-31 & 34 (emphasis added):

Immediately after the suffering of those days the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light; the stars will fall from heaven, and the powers of heaven will be shaken. Then the sign of the Son of Man will appear in heaven, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory. And he will send out his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other… Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place.

The transfiguration bears no relation to any of this, nor to his other predictions about what the Kingdom would be like – the meek inheriting the Earth, the last becoming first and so on – once it was established. The Kingdom of God as Jesus imagined it (and he did imagine it) was to be a far grander affair than a symbolic encounter ‘witnessed’ by a few disciples. It was to be seen by the entire world and would have far-reaching and long-lasting consequences. The transfiguration, no matter how much Jesus’ raiment is made to shine, simply doesn’t qualify. It can’t possibly be, then, what Jesus had in mind when he predicted the end of the age and God’s rule coming to the Earth. There is a fundamental dishonesty in claiming that it is.

Better luck next, Christians…

Whatever happened to the Kingdom of God?

Cross4

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Next time…

 

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

Disciples2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Pentecost

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

Let’s take a look at the evidence:

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

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

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

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

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

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

To be continued…

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

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.