God’s Design for Sexual Relationships: the Gospel According to Don

A digression:

A little while back, a Christian commenter (we’ll call him ‘Don’) made the point that homosexuality and other non-conformist sexualities are ‘not the order of creation God intended‘. Yes, Don knows the intentions of a God whose purposes are unknowable (Romans 11:33-34)! 

And what are those intentions?’ I hear you ask. It is that everyone be, or pretends to be, heterosexual and involves the marriage of one man to one woman for life, for the procreation of children. I know this because it says so in the Book of Common Prayer, originally composed in 1622:

The union of husband and wife in heart, body, and mind is intended by God for their mutual joy; for the help and comfort given one another in prosperity and adversity; and, when it is God’s will, for the procreation of children and their nurture in the knowledge and love of the Lord. Therefore marriage is not to be entered into unadvisedly or lightly, but reverently, deliberately, and in accordance with the purposes for which it was instituted by God.

But how did the writers of this book know this was God’s plan? How do evangelicals today, who subscribe to the same ideas, know that this is what God intended? How does Don?

The Bible. Surely the writers of the prayer book consulted the Bible and created their summary of God’s plan from that. Surely the evangelicals who promote one-man one-woman marriage draw their inspiration from God’s Word. Surely this is how Don knows too.

Let’s see. Here’s what Paul has to say about marriage 1 Corinthians 7:28-29:

…if you marry, you do not sin, and if a virgin marries, she does not sin. Yet those who marry will experience distress in this life, and I would spare you that. I mean, brothers and sisters, the appointed time has grown short; from now on, let even those who have wives be as though they had none.

Hardly a ringing endorsement of marriage!

Paul goes on to say,

I would like you to be free from concern. An unmarried man is concerned about the Lord’s affairs—how he can please the Lord. But a married man is concerned about the affairs of this world—how he can please his wife— and his interests are divided. An unmarried woman or virgin is concerned about the Lord’s affairs: Her aim is to be devoted to the Lord in both body and spirit. But a married woman is concerned about the affairs of this world—how she can please her husband.I am saying this for your own good, not to restrict you, but that you may live in a right way in undivided devotion to the Lord…So then, he who marries the virgin does right, but he who does not marry her does better. A woman is bound to her husband as long as he lives. But if her husband dies, she is free to marry anyone she wishes, but he must belong to the Lord. In my judgment, she is happier if she stays as she is—and I think that I too have the Spirit of God (1 Corinthians 7:32-40).

In other words, avoid marriage if you can, the better to devote yourself entirely to the Lord. How many Christians actually do this? How many preachers and evangelists promote it? None that I know of.

I can already hear Don arguing that Paul’s views are his own and were not handed down from on high. Let’s then turn to what Jesus says about marriage. If anyone knows God’s views on the matter, it must surely be his very own Son. I don’t for a second, believe he was of course, especially as Jesus’ script was written years after Paul and owes a great deal to him. Nonetheless, here’s what Jesus is made to say about God’s plan for marriage:

Jesus said to them, ‘Those who belong to this age marry and are given in marriage; but those who are considered worthy of a place in that age [i.e. that of the Kingdom] and in the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage (Luke 20:34-36).

Surely he can’t be saying that those who want to rise from the dead and make it into the Kingdom of God shouldn’t marry? That they’re not worthy of that Kingdom if they do? Yup, that’s exactly what he’s saying.

Similarly, in Matthew 19:10-12, after discussing divorce with the Pharisees, Jesus responds to the disciples’ remark that ‘it is better not to marry’, with –

…not everyone can accept this teaching, but only those to whom it is given. For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by others, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the Kingdom of heaven. Let anyone accept this who can.

Even interpreted figuratively – though it’s not evident from the text that Jesus is speaking figuratively – this means Jesus thinks it’s preferable to be sexless: chaste, celibate, single. How well that’s worked out for the Catholic church!

Finally, there’s Luke 14:26 where Jesus makes it clear what following him entails:

If anyone comes to me and does not hatewife and children, brothers and sisters—yes, even their own life—such a person cannot be my disciple.

Not much ‘mutual joy’ there.

Unlike Jesus and Paul, I’m not knocking hetero-marriage or the procreation of children. I’ve been involved with both. If these are what floats your boat, that’s great. But they’re not what the Bible promotes. Just the opposite. After the tales of incest, polygamy and adultery in the Old Testament, the New teaches that marriage has had its day. It is to be avoided, the better to follow Jesus, prepare for the coming kingdom and be worthy of eternal life. Only marry, Paul advises, if you can’t control your sexual urges. But, according to Jesus, you are risking your place in the coming kingdom if you do. You can improve your chances by shunning sex altogether.

This is the Bible’s teaching about marriage and God’s intentions for the sexual beings he created. Strictly speaking, it’s the New Testament’s teaching; that of the Old is even more bizarre.

Aah but,’ I hear someone say, ‘it’s all about context.’ Certainly it is; and the context is that Paul and those who created Jesus’ script believed the current age was about to end. Marriage, such as it was (very different from the modern concept, particularly for women who could be bought and sold aged only 12 or 13), would also then be coming to an end. With the arrival of the Kingdom of God on Earth, marriage would be redundant. Better, Paul and the gospel writers argue, to have done with it now to conform ahead of time with the new system, with God’s plan: ‘those who are considered worthy of a place in that age and in the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage.’

But God’s plan – the arrival of his kingdom on Earth in the first century didn’t come to fruition. His plan for marriage to end likewise fell by the wayside. Instead, and without the assistance of any deity, the very human institution of marriage persisted and evolved, eventually being hijacked by the Catholic church in the ninth century. It emerged more or less in its current form – though not for everyone – in the 17th century. Whatever this signifies, it was not what ‘God intended for his creation’ nor his ‘design for sexual relationships’ (Don again, doubling down on his position.)

If the Bible is anything to go by, God has never been very impressed by marriage. His long-term plan for it, if that disreputable book is to be believed, was to scrap it altogether. Yet we still have Christians who use its continued existence to disparage and denigrate those of us who express our sexuality with other adults of the same sex, with whom we share a mutual attraction.

Shame on them.

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.

The Return of the Annual Christmas Quiz!

Back, due to popular demand! The annual Christmas quiz, last seen in 2014. Ten questions on Biblical trivia. Answers at the bottom of the page.

Good luck. You’ll need it.

1. Where did Mary and Joseph live prior to Jesus’ birth?

a) Bethlehem

b) Nazareth

c) Galilee

2. How did Mary conceive?

a) By the power of the Holy Spirit

b) She didn’t. It’s a story.

c) How’d you think?

3. What was the relationship between John the Baptist and Jesus?

a) They were second cousins

b) They didn’t know each other and didn’t meet until they were adults

c) Jesus originally belonged to John’s baptism cult

4, When was Jesus born?

a) When Herod I was alive

b) After Herod had died and Quirinius was governor of Syria

c) Perhaps he wasn’t

5. How did Mary end up giving birth in Bethlehem?

a) There’s no evidence she gave birth in Bethlehem

b) She and Joseph had to go there because of the Roman census

c) She lived there anyway

6. The Lord tells Mary to call her child

a) Jesus

b) Immanuel

c) Yeshua

7. Where did the family go following the birth?

a) They went home to their house in Bethlehem

b) Egypt

c) Nazareth

8. Who preserved the songs of Zechariah, Mary and Simeon (Luke 1 & 2)?

a) They were preserved orally word-for-word for 50 years

b) They were recorded in Q

c) They were created in their entirety by Luke, based loosely on Jewish scriptures

9. Where is the prophecy, quoted by Matthew (2:23), that Jesus would be called a Nazarene?

a) Micah

b) Isaiah

c) Nowhere: there is no such prophecy in Jewish scriptures or anywhere else

10. Which is the most unbelievable part of the nativity stories of Matthew and Luke?

a) a host of singing angels hovering in the sky

b) the wand’rin’ star

c) a virgin giving birth

d) Herod’s re-enactment of a story from Exodus

e) All the angelic visitations, dreams and visions that are needed to make the stories function

Answers:

1. Where did Mary and Joseph live prior to Jesus’ birth? All of the answers here are correct, so the Holy Bible say. According to Matthew, Mary & Joseph lived in Bethlehem. According to Luke they lived in Nazareth. According to Mark, it was known that Jesus hailed from Nazareth though he doesn’t say Jesus was born there. John refers to Jesus being from Galilee and acknowledges he comes from Nazareth (1:46).

Matthew and Luke insist Jesus was from Bethlehem to make him ‘fulfil’ the prophecy that the Messiah would come from there. Mark and John apparently don’t care.

2. How did Mary conceive? Matthew and Luke have the Holy Spirit do the deed. Matthew says merely that Mary ‘conceived by the Holy Spirit’, while Luke really goes to town with a ridiculous story involving an angel and Mary being orgasmic about the coming of the Lord. Mark hasn’t heard of either account, because neither had been invented, and fails to invent his own. John is only interested in Jesus as The Logos prior to his time on Earth. Actually, Jesus could only have been conceived by the only method we know that works: boy and girl hoochie-coochie.

3. What was the relationship between John the Baptist and Jesus? All are correct. Luke says Jesus and John were second cousins (1:36) and their mothers were close (1:56). The Gospel of John (1:31) says that John the Baptist didn’t know Jesus personally. Some scholars think Jesus was originally a member of John’s baptism cult.

4, When was Jesus born? a) and b) are both correct according to the gospels. Matthew places Jesus’ birth in Herod I’s reign, which ended when he died in 4BCE. Luke meanwhile dates it to Quirinius’ governorship of Syria, which was in 6 and 7CE. No wonder there are those who think Jesus may never have existed, so encrusted with myth and make-believe is he.

5. How did Mary end up giving birth in Bethlehem? The census is a contrivance to shift the birth to Bethlehem. There wasn’t a census of the kind described when Quirinius was governor of Syria, nor in 4BCE. Quirinius’ census was of property and would not have entailed the (mass) movement of people. Matthew seems to think M&J lived in Bethlehem all along. No-one else thinks so.

As the Bethlehem connection derives only from prophecy (Micah 5:2), it is likely Matthew and Luke located the birth there to show the ‘fulfilment’ of that prophecy. In other words, they invented it, as they do other ‘fulfilments’. It looks like a) is the only viable answer.

6. The Lord tells Mary to call her child… According to Matthew. Mary is meant to call the baby Immanuel, which, as the text helpfully informs us, means ‘God with us’. This is to make the story comply with Isaiah 7:14 which claims the Messiah will be called Immanuel. But Mary doesn’t call her baby Immanuel. She calls him Yeshua, meaning ‘God Saves’, which is not the same thing. How Matthew thinks this is a fulfilment of the Immanuel prophecy is anyone’s guess. When the gospels came to be written, Yeshua was rendered in Greek as Iesus and eventually in English as Jesus. Neither he nor his mother would have recognised this rendering.

7. Where did the family go following the birth? Again, all are correct according to the gospels. The family went on living in Bethlehem according to Matthew (2:7-11) but fled to Egypt according to Luke. Mark doesn’t appear to know either the Bethlehem or Egypt stories and refers only to Jesus coming from Nazareth.

8. Who preserved the songs of Zechariah, Mary and Simeon (Luke 1 & 2)? c) is correct. No oral tradition could possibly preserve the three carefully structured poems verbatim for 50 years. The hypothetical Q is conjectured to be a collection of Jesus’ sayings so the songs don’t come from there either. Luke or his community made them up.

9. Where is the prophecy, quoted by Matthew (2:23) that Jesus would be called a Nazarene? There is no such ‘prophecy’ anywhere in Jewish scripture nor in any extant writing: c) is correct once again.

10. Which is the most unbelievable part of the nativity stories of Matthew and Luke? That’s right. All of them are completely unbelievable.

How did you do? If you’re confused, don’t be. It’s the gospel writers who were. They made up stories about Jesus so that he complied with parts of Jewish scripture that seemed to them to be speaking of the Messiah. (John’s stories are a little different; they and Jesus’ tedious monologues were created to make him seem more like a Greek demi-god.)

Perhaps though I’m taking it all too literally, ‘like a fundamentalist’ as my self-appointed chief critic likes to say. I should perhaps accept it’s all just a metaphor, as he advises. Of course, when I do, he objects to that too; ‘A metaphor for what?’ he asks, forgetting he’s the one who believes the stories are ‘intended’ to be deeply meaningfully symbolic.

The muddled accounts arose as each gospel writers attempted to make an origin story for their hero based on scraps from Jewish scripture, Paul’s teaching and the emerging beliefs of their particular brand of the cult. They’d have got away with it too if some clever-dicks hadn’t decided, many decades later, to put their efforts side by side so their differences were laid bare for all to see: all the contradictions, inconsistencies, fallacies, anomalies and incompatible flights of fancy. Thank god the church kept their writings hidden away from most folks by preserving them in a language they couldn’t read.

That same critic will no doubt tell me I’m wrong again. ‘Everything happened as Matthew and Luke relate. There are no contradictions between them and the other two, Mark and John, had different priorities anyway.’ (See comments to this post here). He’ll tie himself in knots rather than admit the nativity stories are myth, as is everything that follows.

Have a happy Christmas, ya’ll. See you on the other side.

 

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.

According to Scripture

A simple comparison of Mark’s and Matthew’s gospels is enough to demonstrate that the gospel writers invented their stories of Jesus. I’m going to take only a few examples over the next few posts, but the same analysis could be made of any of the episodes in the two gospels and yield the same results.

Mark starts his story with Jesus’ baptism and subsequent 40 days in the wilderness. The dominant motifs of both episodes are intended to alert the reader to the fact that Mark sees Jesus as the new Moses, preparing to lead his people out of bondage and into the Kingdom that God is preparing for them. The parting seas of Exodus 14 become the parting clouds through which God proclaims Jesus his Son, the 40 year trek through the wilderness (Exodus 16 etc) is replaced with Jesus’ 40 days in the wilderness. 

Mark gives the wilderness episode a mere two sentences (Mark 1.12-13) which isn’t enough for Matthew. He embellishes it in his gospel, making it a full-blown fantasy, complete with a lengthy conversation between Jesus and Satan. Matthew invented this story. We know he did because:

it cannot possibly have come from an eye-witness (because there wasn’t one);

It is patently fantasy material, with Satan, ministering angels and teleportation;

it cannot have derived from any oral tradition (as it is an embellishment of Mark’s tale, invented only a decade earlier, designed to echo the Moses story);

It is designed specifically to extend the analogy with the Moses. In Matthew, Jesus encounters the same temptations as the ancient Israelites in their wilderness trip, but, unlike his forebears, Jesus triumphantly resists them. He then recruits 12 disciples to go on ahead of him (Mark 3:13-15) just as Moses’ appointed 12 spies for the same purpose (Numbers 13). 

Matthew has even more up his sleeve. He is fully aware of the parallels Mark has made between Jesus and Moses and adds a third to the beginning of his Jesus narrative. In his contrived nativity story, he rewrites the story from Exodus 1 and 2, itself a complete fabrication, in which Pharaoh orders the elimination of all Israelite baby boys. He lifts it directly into the so-called Massacre of the Innocents episode in his gospel.

Again, we know Matthew made this up:

Herod did not order any such massacre. It is not an historical event.

Matthew was determined to find incidents in Jewish scripture he could claim were really about Jesus. Here he is at it.

He is determinedly extending Mark’s metaphor; this is not material from any other source or tradition.

He constructs the narrative using additional ‘prophecies’ he finds in the scriptures. For example, the trip to Bethlehem and the flight to Egypt, neither of which happened (no other gospel writers knows of them.) The Egypt episode is an imaginative (and dishonest) expansion of Hosea 11:1: ‘Out of Egypt I called my son’. In context, the verse refers to the Jewish nation not a future Messiah. And who led the Israelites out of Egypt? Moses.

The nativity story and the Moses/Israelite parallels in the Egypt/baptism/wilderness episodes in Matthew are not drawn from tales of Jesus that were doing the rounds. They are clever, contrived literary creations. They tell us too that Matthew did not regard Mark’s more basic stories as history or biography. He evidently did not view them as immutable. He changes and adds to them to make his own points, ‘correct’ Mark, extend his analogies and emphasise that which he thinks Mark hasn’t emphasised enough. Throughout his gospel he’s prepared to create new incidents, even when they conflict with points Mark makes. He knows that Mark’s work, like his own, constitutes carefully devised stories and he feels free – compelled – to improve them. You can’t treat history this way but you can rewrite fiction.

Tailor Made

So where did the stories of Jesus life on Earth come from? The traditional answers to this question are wholly inadequate. As we’ve seen, they didn’t seem to be around when Paul was writing; the hypothetical Q is an unconvincing way of explaining them while unreliable memory, coupled with the so-called oral tradition, don’t offer any means of conveying accurate verifiable information about Jesus.

The writers of the gospels, particularly Mark the creator of the first, would have known this. The gospels are not collections of the speculative tales that were doing the rounds. They might have made some incidental use of them, but all of the gospels are carefully constructed, designed to make theological points about their hero. Particular kinds of stories were required for this and the gospel writers thought nothing of making them up. It’s possible they made use of existing tales, but if they did, they almost certainly retooled them to suit their purposes. The stories we find in the gospels are tailor made to illustrate these purposes. None of the gospels is history: they are all carefully crafted literary creations.

What were the purposes and the agendas of the gospel writers? Propaganda, designed not so much to convert non-believers, but to explain to those who were already part of the cult, and their own sects in particular, what belief in Jesus entailed. To this end, they created allegories, symbolic stories about his life on Earth.

Mark began the process. He constructed his narrative by adapting Paul’s teaching ;and inventing stories based on ‘prophecies’ from the scriptures to create a symbolic narrative every part of which makes a theological point. He may also have retooled existing stories while borrowing features of existing myth that fellow cultists would expect to find in an account of a demi-god’s adventures.

Matthew and Luke then followed his lead, lifting what they thought was of relevance to their own agendas, dropping or amending the rest and inventing their own symbolic stories.

You think they didn’t? I’ll show you that they did, and how, using Mark, Matthew and Luke’s gospels, in a couple of posts time. But before that: a slight and relevant diversion.

In Search of the Lost Q

Where did the stories about Jesus that we find in the gospels come from?

2. Q

Q is a hypothetical document said to be a collection of Jesus’ sayings. It was first hypothesised in the late 19th century and developed by minister B. H. Streeter in 1924. it was intended to explain why Matthew and Luke’s gospels shared material that wasn’t plagiarised from Mark. Streeter speculated they must both have had access to an alternative source that he christened Q (after the German for source, Quelle.)

While the idea caught on and is still assumed by many scholars (including Bart Ehrman) there are numerous problems with it:

Q doesn’t exist and has never existed. There is absolutely no evidence for it, aside from the duplication of material in Matthew and Luke, the very context it was designed to explain. There are no surviving copies, nor even fragments of any written collection of Jesus’ sayings (unsurprisingly for a non-existent document.) Nor is a book of Jesus’ sayings referred to in any form by any New Testament writer (again, unsurprisingly.)

Q is unnecessary. As other scholars, including M. A. Farrer, Mark Goodacre and Richard Carrier, have pointed out, there is a far simpler explanation for Matthew and Luke’s sharing of material they didn’t get from Mark. Either Matthew or Luke had access to the other. It is generally accepted that Matthew’s gospel predated Luke’s by a few years. It is likely therefore that Luke took certain stories from Matthew, as he had others from Mark, and made them his own. Doesn’t he say at the start of his gospel that he intends to collate material about Jesus that was already in circulation? Occam’s Razor also leads to the conclusion that this is a far better explanation of the duplication than a hypothetical third document.

Q doesn’t answer the question of where the stories came from in the first place. Arguably, it moves the solution back a stage but that’s all. If for the sake of argument we assume Q did exist, we still don’t necessarily know where it got its material from. Q really gets us no further forward.

Q is conjectured to be a collection of sayings. They are not set in any context; Q lacks a narrative structure so cannot be where Matthew derived his accounts, for example, of the Temptation in the wilderness (4:1-11), the Sermon on the Mount (5:1-12) or the healing of the centurion’s servant (8:5-13) that Luke would later copy and adapt. These are stories, not mere sayings. Even if Matthew got the sayings they include from some now lost written source from where did he get their context? Eyewitnesses? Unlikely, given he was writing 50 years after the purported events when most eyewitnesses would be dead. He was certainly not an eyewitness himself; he would not have needed to copy large swathes of Mark if he was. Nor does Matthew claim to be using eyewitness testimony. Like all the gospel writers he comes nowhere close to citing his sources.

Matthew is, however, notorious at making up stories he thinks make Jesus fit prophecy. He invents still others to make theological points. It’s quite possible he invented these particular accounts too.

Or perhaps, as apologists like to claim, Matthew and the other gospel writers got at least some of their stories from the so-called oral tradition, a grand name for the tales about Jesus that circulated for the 40-70 years before the gospels were written.

We’ll take a look next time.

Stories about Jesus

Our resident Christian implied recently that I disputed that stories about Jesus existed prior to the gospels being written. I don’t – this was another of Don’s straw man arguments – and told him that of course there were earlier stories about Jesus. But then I got to thinking: where exactly are those stories? How do we know they existed? How can we distinguish them from later embellishments?

Let’s take a look at the evidence*, starting with the earliest Christian writing that we have:

Paul

Paul doesn’t refer to a single event from Jesus’ life outside a barebone account of the crucifixion and resurrection. He doesn’t mention, for example, the nativity, the virgin birth, Jesus’ time in the wilderness, his chat with the devil, his baptism, John the Baptist, the miracles, the amazing things Jesus is reputed to have said, the parables, the Sermon on the Mount and Beatitudes, the I Am sayings, the healings, Lazarus, the arrival in Jerusalem, the cleansing of the Temple, the agony in the Garden of Gethsemane, the arrest, Judas, Pontius Pilate, Jesus’ trial, the mockery of the soldiers, Peter’s denial, the words Jesus spoke on the cross, Joseph of Arimathea, the rolled away stone, the empty tomb, Mary Magdalene, Doubting Thomas or the physical Ascension. Neither does he refer to any incidents or episodes from stories that didn’t eventually make it into the gospels. Not one of them. (He does create a narrative of his own that later finds its way there: the ritual of sharing bread and wine which Paul lifts from Pagan ceremonies. We’ll return to it in a later post.)

Apologists like to say that these serious omissions are no more than Paul’s assumption that his readers would already know the stories about Jesus.  He does not need to reiterate them. But no-one is suggesting he should or would have recounted them in full. What is odd and awkward is that Paul doesn’t even allude to them in his teaching. He could clinch many an argument by referring to a particular saying or miracle of Jesus’, but he never does.

When talking about obeying the (Roman) authorities, for example, in 1 Corinthians 15:12 &13, he could have said, ‘Recall that the Lord told us we should render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s,’ but he doesn’t. He could have alluded to Thomas when explaining the importance of having faith without evidence; talked about the empty tomb when discussing Jesus’ resurrection; mentioned the raising of Lazarus as an example of the dead being resurrected; commented on Jesus turning water into wine when arguing that the Law had been superseded by a new covenant. He might even have quoted something Jesus said from a story in circulation that didn’t later end up in one of the gospels.

He doesn’t. Ever.

Paul claims he received none of his information about Jesus from any human being. He insists he received all he knew through revelation – the Lord speaking to him from heaven. Apparently, the Lord neglected to convey any of the details of his life on Earth. The apostles kept equally schtum. Paul was no more knowledgeable about the life of Jesus once he’d he met them than he had been before. Was he not inquisitive? Did he not ask the right questions? Did they dislike him so much they withheld every detail of Jesus’ activities on Earth? Did they not in fact have that kind of information? Whichever it was, Paul seems not have known any of the stories about Jesus that predated the gospels or even that later appeared in them. It’s possible, I would say likely, he did not know of them because they had yet to be created. Many of the stories about Jesus were ten or more years away.

But we mustn’t jump to conclusions. Next time we’ll take a look at other possible sources of these elusive stories.

 

*I read Bart Ehrman’s Jesus Before The Gospels a few years back. I hope I’m not merely reiterating what he says there. While there were some points I found less persuasive than others, Ehrman nevertheless does a good job of showing how stories about Jesus changed and evolved over the years.

The Evolution of Jesus II: from Life Giving Spirit to God the Son and beyond.

A couple of decades after the first visions of a risen Jesus, a Jewish zealot called Saul decided he’d seen him too. He came to imagine a vision he’d had in his head was this same Jesus, who then revealed to Saul – all entirely within his head as he admits – what his death and return from the dead really meant. Paul, as he renamed himself, announced that God had decided Jesus was a good man and returned him to life after his execution. In doing so, God made Jesus his Son (you can read all this poppycock in Romans 1:3-4). Jesus was now a life-giving spirit, the Saviour Christ: 1 Corinthians 15:45. (Maybe though Jesus always had been this; it’s kind of confusing, but in Philippians 2:6-8 Paul seems to think Jesus was some sort of quasi-divine being from the get-go. Take your pick. Whatever.)

Memetic selection ensured the survival and perpetuation of Paul’s bizarre idea, one that was, after all, not unfamiliar to the Hellenised people of the first century. The superstitious embraced and transmitted it without knowing a thing about any itinerant Jewish preacher. 

The next stage of Jesus’ evolution came twenty or so years later, when a believer we now know as Mark decided to write a back story for this Christ. He created his story using Jewish scripture, Paul’s ideas and the rules of the sect to which he belonged. Who knows if Mark believed Jesus had ever been a real person who trudged around Palestine preaching the good news about the end of everything, but in Mark’s story he had him do just that. He decided, crucially, that he wouldn’t have Jesus become God’s adopted son at the time of his spiritual resurrection. Instead, Mark had him become God’s son at his baptism (Mark 1.10-11).

This wasn’t quite good enough for the next two cultists who attempted a Jesus narrative. While they plagiarised much of Mark’s story, they changed details and made up more for Jesus to say and do. Importantly, where Mark had avoided suggesting Jesus’ resurrection appearances had occurred in the real world, Matthew and Luke showed no such reticence. Their Jesus(es) showed himself not in visions but in the flesh. It’s likely Matthew at least knew he was creating a symbolic, literary representation of others’ visions.

At the other end of the story, Matthew and Luke invented largely incompatible birth stories for their hero. For Matthew, Jesus was the Messiah from the time he was born, fulfilling all the prophecies Matthew borrowed to create his nativity story (he doesn’t: the Messiah, according to the very ‘prophecies’ Matthew manipulates is not divine but a human warrior).

Luke, on the other hand, is determined to push Jesus’ divinity even back further. For Luke, Jesus became divine when God magically made Mary pregnant; Luke’s Jesus is quite literally God’s son (Luke 1.35). Unfortunately, Mary forgot all about being impregnated by the Holy Semen Spirit later on in Luke’s ridiculous story. Nevertheless, Jesus’ status had evolved again; he’d become God’s son from the very moment of conception.

Even this was not good enough for the next version of the Jesus’ story. The writers of the fourth gospel decide to make him eternal and part of God himself. Plundering Greek philosophy and Paul’s ruminations from Philippians, they declare Jesus the ‘Logos’; the Word or aspect of God responsible for the creation of everything (John 1:1-5). And despite this being as far from an itinerant peasant preacher as it’s possible to be, even more gullible folk came to believe it.

Jesus’ evolution was still not complete, however. The council of Nicaea in 325 decided that Jesus was ‘begotten not made’ (whatever that means) – but couldn’t quite decide whether being the Logos and the Son of God actually made Jesus God Incarnate. It wasn’t until the Council of Constantinople in 381 that a collection of bishops decided Jesus was, after all, officially part of the Godhead. The apocalyptic preacher from the backwoods finally became God the Son, a mere 350 years after he lived (if indeed he did).

Jesus has continued to evolve ever since, becoming all things to all people; a God pliable enough to be whatever his followers want him to be: Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox, Russian Orthodox, Evangelical, Mormon, fringe cult. He’s evolved into a schizophrenic deity capable of being both meek and mild and bellicose; best buddy and chief executioner; Christian Nationalist, socialist and capitalist, gay and anti-gay, pro-family and anti-family; anti-abortion and pro-gun; environmentalist and iconoclast; the one who promotes a prosperity gospel and the ‘One True God’ known (only) to a select few. Every contradictory manifestation is supported by the Bible, the Church or tradition. Every one is non-existent and ultimately pointless.

That’s some evolution.

The Evolution of Jesus I: from Itinerant Preacher to Death-Defying Vision

Image by Doppler, from YouTube video The Evolution of Jesus Christ.


Everything evolves. Not just Life, but the Mind, Personality, Morality and Culture. This is the thesis of Matt Ridley’s book, The Evolution of Everything: How Small Changes Transform Our World, in which he demonstrates that everything, from the Economy and Technology to Government and Education, were originally, and to some extent remain, bottom up phenomenon. Each emerged because of the developments that had preceded them; for this reason, they couldn’t arrive before they did, but their arrival, when it came, was inevitable. The time was right. Once each did arrive, it embarked on an inexorable process of change. It evolved.

‘Everything’, of course, includes Religion. As Ridley says (p259):

Further evidence for the man-made nature of gods comes from their evolutionary history. It is a little-known fact, but gods evolve. There is a steady and gradual transformation through human history not only from polytheism to monotheism, but from gods who are touchy, foolish, randy and greedy people, who just happen to be immortal, to disembodied and virtuous spirits living in an entirely different realm and concerned mainly with virtue. Contrast the vengeful and irritable Jehovah of the Old Testament with the loving Christian God of today.’

This is undoubtedly the case (Ridley presents his evidence); religion is an entirely human enterprise that developed from the bottom up. It too evolved. As Ridley shows, there is no other way.

While Ridley doesn’t discuss it, this evolutionary process applies to Jesus too. This seems to me apparent, rather than a little-known fact. He didn’t spring from nowhere; the time was right for him. By the start of what is now the first century, an apocalyptic brand of Judaism had emerged, inspired in part by the book of Daniel and other late Old Testament prophecy. It was whipped to fever pitch during the Roman occupation. People were anticipating that the Messiah would soon rescue them by force; the time was right for him to appear. And appear he did, in multiple forms, all of them eliminated by the Romans. Jesus was one of these.

He began either as an itinerant preacher with delusions of grandeur or he was an imaginary being whom a few people thought miraculously appeared to them. It doesn’t matter which; even if he existed, he very quickly evolved into a supernatural being. As an itinerant preacher he would have wandered around a small part of Palestine with a handful of followers, mouthing platitudes and predicting that God’s Kingdom would soon be arriving, and that he would be its king. Instead, he was executed for insurgency. Shortly afterwards, a couple of his followers swore they’d seen him alive again. With this claim Jesus made an evolutionary leap, from troublesome Jewish preacher to death-defying vision.

His evolution was underway.

To be continued…