Assertions

Don likes to take me to task for what he says are assertions in my arguments. I do make assertions, as do we all, because not all points in an argument need to be demonstrated every time they’re used. Indeed, not all assertions can be.

There are assertions that we all accept are likely to be true: the sun will ‘rise’ tomorrow; the Earth is a sphere; evidence is better than no evidence and so on. There are those who dispute these assertions but the onus is then on them to provide the evidence or argument that their counter-assertion is true. Yes, there may come a day when the sun doesn’t rise but it is statistically improbable; the Earth is demonstrably not flat; faith is not an reliable substitute for evidence. There is abundant evidence and sound argument why these things are not the case. But – and this is my point – this evidence does not have to be trotted out every time an argument relies on such probabilities; they can be asserted.

I write, and indeed live my life, on the basis of the fact (‘assertion’) that the supernatural does not exist. Over the last ten years, I’ve posted several arguments why this is the case. I frequently provide a link to these arguments when asserting that, outside of the human imagination, gods, spirits, angels, devils, demons, powers, principalities, ghosts, avatars, heaven and hell do not exist. These arguments form the backbone of any subsequent assertion that the supernatural is not real.

Nonetheless, the onus to ‘prove’ that this is the case does not rest with me. First, because it is impossible to prove a negative. Consider, for example, the Christians challenge to prove their God doesn’t exist. While there is plenty of circumstantial evidence that this is the case, there is no absolute ‘proof’ of God’s non-existence (as I’ve argued before, it all comes down to probability, or, in God’s case, improbability.) Absence of evidence is invariably evidence of absence.

The onus instead lies with the one making the incredible claim. Those who take it as fact that the supernatural and God are real need to demonstrate to the rest of us that this is the case. They have, in my long experience, failed to do this. The best they can do are the various arguments (the ontological, Kalam cosmological, teleological, fine-tuning and the argument from design) that suggest the possibility of the supernatural but fall far short of convincing evidence that the supernatural is real, and further still that the Christian God exists. They depend in the end on the feelings they have in their heads and the Bible (or some other holy book.) This is wholly inadequate

Consequently, I’ll continue to operate from and make my assertion that the supernatural does not exist until such time as Don or any other of his co-religionists demonstrate the probability that it does.

From my assertion, backed up, remember, by earlier arguments, a number of other facts follow:

With no supernatural, there are no gods; YHWH in all his incarnations is a God, therefore YHWH does not exist.

Much follows from this:

If YHWH does not exist, Jesus cannot have been either his avatar, Son or incarnation;

Jesus cannot have been raised from the dead by a being who doesn’t exist;

Stories that he did so must therefore be merely that: stories;

The celestial, eternal Jesus who sits at the right hand of God in heaven is not real;

Any experience people have of this being is entirely within their own imaginations;

The Bible is based on such imagined encounters with these imagined characters;

There is no after-life or judgment;

The Christian faith, including my own, cannot be explained in terms of the supernatural;

Only explanations that are rooted in naturalism, as in science, have any validity.

There are more implications that can be drawn from the premise that there is no supernatural, including the fact that the world makes much more sense (if it makes any sense at all) without drawing gods and demons into it.

Consequently, I shall continue to make my assertions, like those above, supported as always by previous argument. Any religious believer who wants to challenge them is welcome to do so, but must do more than point out the obvious, that they are assertions. They must provide the evidence for the supernatural, and all that follows from it, independent of the goings on in their heads and without reference to holy books written by those with similar subjective feelings.

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’.  

Fakin’ It

Here’s my dilemma. I got this letter from a group of students at the university of Selcuck in Turkey. Well, when I say I received the letter, it was addressed to Professor Paulson who was head of the Philosophy department here in the 90s. He’s been dead now over 20 years of course, so when I picked up the letter, I thought I’d just write back and tell them that and that they’d have to work out their problems for themselves. Then I thought, ‘well, hang on a minute, the Professor was your tutor back in the day. You know how he thought and how he’d address these particular problems. Hell, you’ve even got some of his old papers locked away in your filing cabinet. You could take one or other of those and with a bit of tweaking, concoct a reply yourself. That’d be perfectly legitimate wouldn’t it?’ I mean I occupy the chair he once did so I am in effect his replacement.

So that’s what I do. I take one of Professor Paulson’s papers and I use it as the basis of a letter. Of course, matters in philosophy have moved on a bit since the Professor’s time so I add quite a bit of my own stuff, which is all pretty good and in line with what he might have thought, had he lived this long. After all, I studied under him in the ’80s so I have a pretty good idea of what he might think today, if he were still with us. If I do say so myself, it’s pretty good stuff. Nobody could tell Paulson didn’t write it.

Now, I do consider admitting at the start of the letter, or maybe the end of it, that I wrote the letter and not the Prof. But then I think, well, these folk don’t know he’s no longer with us so what’s the harm? I’ll just send it and they can reach their own conclusions. I mean, it wouldn’t be my fault, would it, if they jumped to the wrong conclusion. And then I think, well, if they’re going to do that I might as well sign it as if it is from the Professor. I mean, who’s to know? And maybe I could add that bit at the beginning suggesting it was from him. Suggesting? Saying it is from him. That’s what I do, and off it goes.

I hear later, on the grapevine, it’s gone down pretty well. They like what it says and are convinced it’s from Paulson. Everybody’s happy.

And then I find out, a couple of months down the line, that it’s been published. The Selcuck students have had it published, in an influential journal no less, and the academic world is celebrating the final lost paper of Professor Paulson’s. And here’s my dilemma: it’s not, is it. It’s me. I’ve taken his old paper, embellished it and sent it out into the world as if it’s his. What do I do? What would you do? Confess it’s not what it seems? Or bask in the knowledge that what I’ve written is as good as anything he wrote in life? A fake, yes, for sure, but a damn good one that, with a bit of luck, no-one’s ever going to spot. Do you know, I think I’ll leave it, say nothing. The joke’s on them.

Of course such a thing could never happen. Or could it? The letter to the Ephesians in the New Testament claims to have been written by Paul. It starts with this greeting:

Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, To God’s holy people in Ephesus, the faithful in Christ Jesus: Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

and ends with some vaguely autobiographical details.

But it wasn’t written by Paul. Scholars think it was created in the 80s, about twenty years after Paul died. Much of the letter is a reworking of Colossians, the authorship of which is similarly disputed. Here’s the opening of Colossians:

Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and Timothy our brother, To God’s holy people in Colossae, the faithful brothers and sisters in Christ: Grace and peace to you from God our Father.

The Ephesians opening is a direct lift. None of Paul’s genuine letters follow this format. The letter itself has a style and vocabulary unlike that in the genuine Pauline letters and there are significant differences in theology too. Here’s how Bart Ehrman summarises the problem (though note he is not the only scholar who disputes Paul’s authorship of Ephesians; it is the consensus view): 

Ephesians does not resemble Paul’s writing style and the letter contains an inordinate number of words that Paul does not use in any of his undisputed letters. As in Colossians, Ephesians suggests that the believer has already been raised with Christ-a view that contradicts Paul’s undisputed writings. The author of Ephesians, moreover, uses the term “works” differently than Paul. For Paul, “works” refers to adherence to the Jewish law, actions that cannot save. The author of Ephesians, however, understands “works” to mean those actions that demonstrate one’s faith.

Some generously describe Ephesians and other letters attributed to Paul that aren’t by him, as Deutero-Pauline: ‘in the tradition of Paul’. Some speculate that they were written by one of Paul’s disciples but there’s no way of knowing this for sure. Others prefer the term Pseudepigrapha, literally ‘false inscription or writing’, which is nearer the mark.

The author of Ephesians, like those of other pseudepigraphical letters, such as the pastorals (1 and 2 Timothy and Titus) claims explicitly to be Paul knowing full well he is not. This is not some disciple trying to express the views of the master, this is someone passing themselves off as someone else, pretending they are the more well-known, revered and authoritative figure. Even if they were someone familiar with Paul’s teaching (the differences in theology suggest otherwise) would it be legitimate for him to claim he is Paul?

Like my fictional individual above, the author of Ephesians is a deceitful impostor, his work a forgery, designed possibly to ‘correct’ Paul’s position on certain issues. And yet here is his letter in the New Testament; God’s Holy Word no less. While there is a very human history of how works were selected for inclusion in the New Testament, how on Earth did God, in the guise of the Holy Spirit, allow this and other forgeries to become part of the canon?

Of course, God had nothing to do with it. The author of Ephesians duped not only the letter’s original audience, but also the later believers who included it in the Bible. He continues to deceive the faithful down to this day.  I know: I was one. 

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.

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?

How Prophecy Works

Like many evangelicals and others afflicted by Christianity, Don Camp believes that the Old Testament is jam-packed with prophecies about Jesus; his origin, background, mission, teaching, sacrifice and resurrection. He quotes a couple in one of his recent comments, which we’ll get to soon, and thinks that the general direction of travel is from ancient prophecy to later fulfilment in Jesus. Don and those like him will not entertain the possibility that this is an illusion created by those who constructed the Jesus’ stories.

Here’s how the illusion was created: the gospel writers, and Paul too, looked back at the Old Testament (‘the scriptures’) and found there what Don describes as ‘indistinct’ references to events they believed had happened in their own time. From these and other sources, they built their stories about Jesus. More often than not, these scriptural references were not in themselves prophecies or predictions of Jesus’ life, death or resurrection. We know this by a) reading them in their original context, b) recognising that the Jewish scriptures as a whole never speak of a Messiah who must die an ignoble death for his people, and c) noting the number of times these ‘indistinct’ statements have to be altered by the gospel writers and others, to make them ‘fit’ their conception of their God-man.

Let’s start with one of Don’s picks, from Isaiah 53:11:

After he has suffered, he will see the light of life.

It has to be conceded that all of Isaiah 53 does indeed look like it’s a prophecy of Jesus’ suffering, death and resurrection. In context, however, the suffering servant it describes is Israel itself, as surrounding chapters make clear. Furthermore, on closer inspection, some of it doesn’t seem to apply to Jesus at all. Verses 2&3 really don’t describe a man followed around by multitudes and later worshipped by millions:

He grew up before him like a tender shoot, and like a root out of dry ground. He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him. He was despised and rejected by mankind, a man of suffering, and familiar with pain. Like one from whom people hide their faces he was despised, and we held him in low esteem.

Unsurprisingly, Don doesn’t quote these verses. Sure, it’s possible to make them fit; to say that these verses 2-3 describe Jesus on trial with the crowd baying for his blood; but it’s a stretch. We’ll come back to Isaiah 53 shortly.

Don then refers to ‘the prophecy about (Jesus) not seeing corruption as a dead body’. This is actually Psalm 16:10:

You (YHWH) will not abandon me to the realm of the dead, nor will you let your faithful one see decay.

And, my, yes it does seem to fit Jesus once again, if we believe he died and rose again before his body could deteriorate. But it isn’t about him. It’s about the writer of the psalm, traditionally David, expressing his belief that his God will preserve him. Plucked out of context, it can sound like it’s Jesus being described, just as any number of other verses can be said to be about future events when they’re not. For example, some Christians, including Pat Robertson, are currently claiming that Ezekiel 38:1-2 is a prophecy of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine:

Son of man, set your face against Gog, of the land of Magog, the prince of Rosh, Meshech, and Tubal, and prophesy against him.

That works, don’t you think?

No. Me, neither. Such nebulous statements can easily be applied to much later events on which they have no actual bearing.

Which brings us neatly to the gospels. These claim that the events they describe were foretold by the prophets of old (Luke 24:44). It would be truly remarkable if, as Don believes, all of the prophecies about Jesus in the scriptures were actually fulfilled by him. Some Christian sources claim there are as many as 300. But, as we’ve seen, some of these are so vague they can be made to apply when in fact they don’t.

And this is how the Jesus story came about; it is structured around many of these indistinct prophecies. The authors of the gospels, and Paul too, knew their scriptures and built up a story about the Messiah using them. Like Paul, Mark had little knowledge of the circumstances of his Messiah’s earthly life, so he set about creating a biography for him using ‘prophecies’, scenarios and statements from the scriptures. We might ask here why he should do this if Jesus was as remarkable as early cultists claimed. There is no need to invent stories about a remarkable figure if that figure has already lived an amazing life that is widely known about. Be that as it may, Mark and the other gospel writers set about creating an elaborate life for their hero, largely based on ancient scriptures.

Mark quotes Isaiah 53 directly in 15:38 and makes extensive use of the chapter in his account of Jesus’ passion. Let me stress: Isaiah 53 is not a prophecy of the passion, it is the blueprint for it. Mark’s account is Isaiah 53, down to Jesus’ silence at his trial and his being buried ‘with the rich’.

Matthew and Luke later embellished Mark’s efforts by doing more of the same thing, adding fresh episodes to Mark’s core gospel. Most of these embellishments  are based on ‘prophecies’ that Mark somehow missed. None of them necessarily happened – I’m persuaded they didn’t – but are ‘actualisations’ of parts of ancient scripture. We know this because of mistakes Matthew made in expanding the story, using the additional ‘prophecies’ he ‘discovered’ in scripture. We’ll get to these mistakes next time.

 

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‘.

Dear Evangelical: Why Aren’t You A Mormon?

Dear Don,

Why are you not a Mormon? I mean, you appeal to the evidence of consistency across the 66 books of the bible, claim that the gospel writers remained true to an oral tradition (despite John’s gospel being markedly different from the other three) and insist there is no difference between the original apostles’ gospel and Paul’s (when Paul is adamant there is.) In fact, there is even better evidence that Mormonism is true.

First off, Joseph Smith saw the resurrected Jesus in person! Not only Jesus but God the Father too. And they spoke to him! He relates the story himself, so unlike the gospels, this is no second hand reportage:

I saw two Personages, whose brightness and glory defy all description, standing above me in the air. One of them spake unto me, calling me by name and said, pointing to the other—This is My Beloved Son. Hear Him!

Following this, young Joseph was instructed to translate the Book of Mormon from some golden plates. We don’t have to take his word for it that these plates existed because Joseph had witnesses:

Eleven official witnesses and several unofficial witnesses testified to the existence of the golden plates and, in some cases, to dramatic supernatural confirmation of their truth. Meticulous research on these witnesses has confirmed their good character and the veracity of their accounts.

Impressive, don’t you think? We have no such affidavits for the gospel writers – we don’t even know who they were!

Also like the Bible, the Book of Mormon had multiple authors (Joseph Smith was only translating, remember):

Furthermore, in recent years, rigorous statistical analysis strongly indicates that neither Joseph Smith nor any of his known associates composed the English text of the Book of Mormon. In fact, research suggests that the book was written by numerous distinct authors.

And yet, the Book of Mormon tells a story even more consistent than the Bible’s!

Better still,

the Holy Ghost affirms the authenticity of the Book of Mormon, just as he does the Bible: the conclusion of the matter is that much modern evidence supports the more powerful witness of the Holy Ghost that the Book of Mormon is true. Joseph Smith, who translated it, had to be what he said he was, a prophet of God.

Finally, the growth of the Church of The Latter Day Saints demonstrates its truth and saving power. Its early expansion was greater than that of the first-century church.

Amazing, don’t you think, Don?

* * * * *

I expect like me, you reject all this so-called evidence and regard Mormonism as so much bunk. But on what basis? What causes you to dismiss the teaching of the Latter Day Saints while embracing the equally incredible, magic-infused stories of the Bible? As the Mormon church says (sounding not unlike yourself when talking about the Bible):

Persons who choose to dismiss the Book of Mormon must find their own ideas for explaining it and the mounting evidence for its authenticity.

When you arrive at the criteria you apply in rejecting Mormonism, you’ll have arrived at the reasons I and many others reject your beliefs.