How to work out when Jesus died

Blog338Darkness

When did Jesus die? The year, I mean.

The honest answer is we don’t know. In Michael J. Alter’s The Resurrection: A Critical Enquiry, recommended by John Loftus’s Debunking Christianity blog-site, the author considers twelve different dates that have been proposed, together with the reasons why. Ultimately though, we don’t know.

Which is strange, not only because, as Alter points out, Jesus’ death and resurrection are supposedly the most significant events ever to have happened in the entire history of the world, but because it should be really easy to pinpoint the date. It was the year there was –

  • a total eclipse of the sun that, for over three hours, plunged the whole land (some translations have ‘earth’) into darkness,
  • an earthquake that caused appreciable damage, 
  • the tearing from top to bottom of the four inch thick, 82 feet high curtain in the temple,
  • the dead rising from their graves to make themselves known to the inhabitants of Jerusalem (including, presumably, the extensive Roman presence.)

We know this because the gospels tell us so; these events all took place either just before (Luke) or just after (Matthew) Jesus’ death. Let’s overlook the fact that solar eclipses don’t ever occur at the point of a full moon, while Passover, when Jesus died, happens only when there is one, and take a look at Matthew’s version of events:

From noon on, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon. And about three o’clock Jesus cried with a loud voice… and breathed his last. At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. The earth shook, and the rocks were split. The tombs also were opened, and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised. After his resurrection they came out of the tombs and entered the holy city and appeared to many. (Matthew 27.45, 46, 51-53)

All we need to do, therefore, is look for corroboration of these four cataclysmic events occurring together in the records of the time. (The Romans were particularly good at recording such things; we know, for example, there was an eclipse in AD29, though that lasted a measly 2 minutes.) Once we’ve found this corroborative evidence, we’ll know for certain the year in which Jesus died.

But you’re ahead of me: there is no record anywhere, apart from the gospels, of these events ever taking place, certainly not in combination. No record of a widespread darkness, nor of an accompanying earthquake nor of the temple veil tearing from top to bottom, nor of the dead emerging from their tombs. Which isn’t to say they didn’t happen, but you’d think someone, somewhere would have noticed and would have written about them. Josephus maybe, or Plutarch, Greek or Roman authorities, or even Paul; anyone writing at the time or soon after; any of those of those whose history of the period has survived.

But no.

It’s enough to make you think these earth-shattering events didn’t really happen; that they’re all made up for theological reasons.

And you’d be right.

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God is revealed in Jesus… or not

 

Blog335CompositeOn his blog-site, humbly named after himself, Roger E. Olson trots out the tired old cliche that there’s no such thing as atheism. Atheists, Rog tells us, know in their hearts that God exists, they just choose to ignore him. As a result, Rog has little time for atheism. (I discovered Roger’s wonderfully smug site through Bruce Gerenscer’s excellent one.)

Rog says that if we want to see what this heart-implanted God looks like, then we shouldn’t look to the Old Testament and the tribal warlord we find there – goodness me, no; we can safely discard him! That God just doesn’t match up to our twenty-first century sensibilities. No, if we want to see God then what we must do is look at Jesus, for in Jesus we see what God is really like.

Oops! We’re right back at the problem I’ve been discussing these last few posts: just which Jesus are we talking about? There are so many. There’s the Jesus of the synoptic gospels (though he’s neither consistent nor pleasant), who is nothing like the self-obsessed Jesus of John’s gospel. Paul’s Christ is different again; he’s a complete invention, much like the Jesus of Hebrews who has morphed into a Jewish High Priest. The Jesus of Revelation meanwhile is an Evil Mutant straight out of the Marvel Universe, what with swords coming out of his mouth and all. So which Jesus has Rog got in mind? I think we should be told.

There are so many discrepancies in the various interpretations of Jesus in the New Testament, that it’s hard to see a clear, consistent picture of anything, let alone God, in such a shifting kaleidoscope of images. I’ve recommend that Rog should take atheism a little more seriously; the often incompatible Jesuses of the bible don’t reveal ‘the true nature of God’ anywhere as clearly as he claims. I’d go further: none of them show – can possibly show – what the non-existent is ‘really’ like. What they reveal instead are ideas about a God and a saviour made entirely in the image of the men who tasked themselves with creating them.

Hearing things

Blog332Pray

Don Camp has responded to my previous post, Voices In The Head, with a longish essay that he posted on Debunking Christianity. I want to use what he says to debunk the foolish notion that God speaks directly to people via their own  thoughts.

Those of us who do not believe in a God have, Don says, no ‘philosophical context’ for his speaking and are bound to ‘have trouble’ with the idea. I have to say, in fact, that I have no trouble at all with it. It’s easy: no God = no God speaking.

The rational thing to do, Don goes on, is for skeptics to fit those reports of God speaking into a context we do have, such as self-talk or schizophrenic delusions. This is another statement of the obvious; with no supernatural to account for such voices there can only be a rational explanation for this most irrational of phenomena.

Don then tries an analogy: ‘trying to explain God speaking to those who have no way to make sense of it is like explaining the color and beauty of a sunset to someone with no eyes.’ This is less than convincing. Those who are sceptical about God speaking (or doing anything) do have ‘eyes’: their rationality and critical faculties. A more accurate parallel for trying to persuade others the Almighty sends messages into his followers’ heads would be claiming that the events of a dream you had last night really happened in the world as we know it. ( I’ll have more to say about dreams later.)

‘I’ve said clearly,’ says Don, ‘what God speaking to people is not. It is not self-talk.’ Alas, Don does not tell us how he knows this.

‘Those who hear God speaking do not mistake it for self-talk,’ which is a pity because that’s what it is; Christians might choose to relabel it ‘God’ but that doesn’t mean it is. ‘It is also not schizophrenic delusions.’ It is a delusion though; I haven’t actually said that Don’s inner voice represents schizophrenia (he brought up the term) but I can’t see any difference between the voice he hears and those experienced, perhaps in more severe form, by schizophrenics.

‘Schizophrenic delusions, in which the sufferer either sees things that aren’t there or hears voices no one else hears, are characterized by self-isolation behavior, delusions, disorganized speech, bizarre behaviors, and flat affect. (see https://medical-dictionary…. )’ Whereas those hearing God’s voice gather together in self-contained enclaves separated, by choice, from ‘the World’. At other times they withdraw to talk to an imaginary super-being on their own and, according to Don, have him speak to them. If they’re really lucky, they’ll even get to see things that aren’t there. Obviously this kind of bizarre behaviour bears no resemblance to the true schizophrenic.

Don again: ‘Schizophrenic behaviors are very self-focused and their delusions are sometimes fearful or hateful and sometimes violent. It is the last that we see when people afflicted with schizophrenia pick up a gun and shoot up a school or a church or behead a girlfriend, as in the case you’ve noted in Mt. Vernon, Washington.’ Of course, schizophrenia is the same as most human behaviours; it exists on a spectrum. The Christian’s inner voice may not be as extreme or anti-social as that of the schizophrenic, but hearing it is on the same spectrum, perhaps at the safe end. Until it’s not, of course, as in the examples Don refers to.

‘But what about the person who hears God speak telling him that he should build a hospital in the Congo for AIDS patients or reach out to help the homeless? That is not the behavior of someone who suffers from mental illness. But that is the sort of thing that characterizes the lives of those ordinary Christians who report hearing God speak. So inner voices sometimes tell Christians to do good things. So what? This isn’t evidence they’re from God. What Don’s really arguing here, is that a ‘good’ message proves the Christian’s inner voice is God. And how do they know it’s God and not just self-talk? Because the message is ‘good’. This is circular and self-fulfilling, and doesn’t take into account all those instances when ‘God’ commands people to do bad things. According to the Old Testament it was the Lord himself who commanded Moses, Joshua and Samuel to massacre neighbouring tribes, the Lord who told Abraham to execute his own son in an especially cruel ‘test’. Doesn’t God do this any more? Has the unchanging God changed in this respect? Believers don’t just hear God telling them to do good things; the evidence is right there in the bible that (they imagine) he tells them to do wicked things too.

‘Does that kind of selfless compassion and determined service to mankind come from schizophrenic delusion or a disordered mind disconnected from reality? I do not think so. But that and many, many similar things are the result people having truly heard God speak.’ No, it’s the result of people interpreting an inner prompting as God. Interpreting it as such does not mean it is.

‘No physician would diagnose the many millions of ordinary Christians who report God speaking to them as schizophrenic.’ As I’ve already suggested, Don is creating a false dichotomy here: it isn’t necessary to be a diagnosed schizophrenic. It’s possible those hearing ‘helpful’ voices are much lower down on the delusional spectrum. They may never be schizophrenic in the medical sense, but this does not mean their voices are not self-generated.

‘But if God speaking is NOT self-talk or delusional, what is it?’ It is both of these things and Don hasn’t demonstrated otherwise. Still, let’s humour him and press on:

‘I think that J. Warner Wallace has as good an explanation as any. It is far more than voices in our heads. You can read his article here http://www.foxnews.com/opin…Fox News? Don really is in trouble.

‘What is significant for those who are convinced that there is no God out there to speak is that their conclusion contrasts with the experience (of) many billions of people over a very long time. It was the experience of those who wrote the Bible and many of those they wrote about. It has been the experience of billions since.’ Aah, now we’re playing the numbers game: ‘lots of people think this so it must be true.’ Well, okay, but many more billions dream while they’re asleep, and those dreams must come from somewhere; they can only be from God – there’s even biblical support for the idea that they are. So, if numbers of people demonstrate God’s involvement in our psyches then dreams are far more numerous than God merely speaking directly. However, God doesn’t create or speak through dreams, even though the bible suggests in places that he does. People may interpret them as God speaking but, as I’ve already said, interpretation is not evidence – and numbers prove nothing.

And now, having failed to present any sort of persuasive evidence that his inner voices are from God, Don leaps to this conclusion: ‘it is not really helpful for skeptics, who consider themselves in some way more grounded in reality than the rest of mankind, to Wave off this God speaking thing as delusional.’ Do we skeptics consider ourselves more grounded in reality – yes, I think perhaps we do. We look at evidence, not at what people believe they’re experiencing nor the numbers who believe, nor to the supernatural as an explanation for human phenomena. Voices in the head are generated by the brain; as Don concedes the mind commonly does this when we create a dialogue with ourselves. The nature of this dialogue is influenced and altered in those whose minds are saturated with religious ideas and mythology to the extent it is (mis)interpreted as the voice of God. This is the reality. I know, I’ve been there.

‘You need to consider,’ says Don in his coup de grace, ‘if there is not more to reality than you believe’? Do we? Do I? When a perfectly adequate explanation exists for voices in the head, why should any of us consider an alternative that relies on the supernatural? Actually though, I’ve done that too; for a long time I believed there must be ‘more to reality’ than we humans could conceive of or comprehend. So far, however, there is absolutely no evidence – zero, zilch – that what we don’t understand is Supernatural. Whether I ‘believe’ this or not is immaterial; it is a demonstrable fact. The Creator of everything-there-is cannot therefore be the source of voices in the head, dreams, visions or any other damn thing.

So, Don, a final point: if you stick, as I’m sure you will, with your belief that the voices you and other Christians hear are from God, then perhaps you could tell us why he says different things to different Christians – completely contradictory things (as I’ve written about here)? How do you account for God whispering one thing to you and the opposite to a fellow-believer? Do you dismiss as schizophrenic those who say God tells them not to commit massacres, but to shun gay people, control the weather, take possession of a new jet or prepare for the ‘great persecution‘ to come? Are these fellow Christians deluded? Maybe misinterpreting the voices in their head? If you dismiss them as deluded, muddle-headed or schizophrenic then you can perhaps see how we skeptics view you.

The Resurrection Explained

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The earliest reference to Jesus being raised from the dead appears in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians: 

Christ died for our sins, just as the Scriptures said. He was buried, and he was raised from the dead on the third day, just as the Scriptures said. He was seen by Peter and then by the Twelve. After that, he was seen by more than 500 of his followers (Corinthians 15.3-6).

Scholars are generally agreed that Paul is quoting from a very early creed, created within a few years of Jesus’ death. Ftbond, a commenter on Escaping Christian Fundamentalism, asks that if this creed was in existence

within a year or two or three after Jesus crucifixion (and, obviously, claimed resurrection), then one must ask: What was so important, so astounding, so amazing, so desirable, so attractive, so encaptivating (sic) and charismatic about that person that anyone would think him to be a “candidate” for resurrection in the first place?

It seems to me all of these questions and attendant adjectives are irrelevant and that ftbond is looking at the resurrection claims the wrong way round.

First, the creed doesn’t refer to ‘resurrection’. ‘He was raised’ is the term favoured by these earliest of Christians, one that doesn’t suggest they could only have had a reanimated corpse in mind.

There is no justification for supposing that ‘he was raised’ meant the same, either in Paul’s mind or that of the creed writers, as ‘bodily resurrection’. To assume they’re the same is to impose all the later accretions of the latter term onto the much simpler earlier one. We know Paul’s ‘risen Christ’ was a ‘revelation’ in his own head (let’s call it an hallucination) and nowhere does he suggest that Jesus was brought back to life in his old body. Paul talks only of Jesus being raised as ‘a life giving spirit’, not a ‘corrupt’ body of flesh at all (1 Corinthians 15.46).

Hallucinations of a ‘raised’ Jesus, then, long preceded the idea that he had returned in the same physical body that two days earlier had died on the cross. The notion that he was alive again resulted from the ‘visions’ – quite possibly dreams – that two or three of his early followers had. They took these visions to mean that Jesus had returned spiritually from beyond the grave.

Others came to believe in the risen Jesus, not because they personally experienced a vision or dream about him (though Paul insists there were some who did), but because of the reports of others experiencing them. Still more became believers as a result of reports of reports (of reports.) These experiences were then incorporated into creeds like the one quoted by Paul, and ultimately into the gospels when they were written 40-100 years later. By that time the original hallucinations were being worked up into real encounters with a Jesus physically resurrected in the flesh.

No-one needed to find Jesus ‘captivating’, ‘astounding’ and all those other adjectives ftbond applies to him; most converts, like Paul, would never even have met him. It is all a matter of interpretation; either a few early believers convinced themselves they’d experienced their late charismatic companion alive again, or, if he didn’t actually exist (and he is so mythic this is a possibility), they concocted a back story for their mystical experiences. The result was the creation of stories about Jesus, largely cobbled together from the ‘Scriptures’ (as Paul all but admits.)

This seems to me to be the most likely explanation of the ‘resurrection’. There is so much special pleading in the gospel accounts, so much that is clearly invented and designed to fulfil prophecy, so many inconsistencies and anomalies, that the entire enterprise smacks of imaginative invention, designed to lend credence to a few people’s innervisions.

The Sect Hiding in Plain Sight

Condemning-Pharisees

With thanks to David Eves.

Back at the start of Christianity, the cult was divided into numerous factions; not unlike its modern counterpart. Acts’ claim that all the new converts – the church – got on famously, sharing all they had and generally taking part in one big love-in is spin, a lie concocted by its author, ‘Luke’. Its not the only lie he invents; later in Acts he tries to present the new faith’s ambassadors, Paul and the original apostles, as being largely in agreement about what the Christian message was about. We know from Paul’s own writing that this wasn’t so.

Likewise the united church. We know that there was part of the cult that had a very different theology and soteriology (doctrine of salvation) from Paul. They didn’t subscribe to his incantational magic about a dying god-man who would save them if they claimed his death for themselves. Instead, this group believed that the way to find favour with God was to be ‘righteous’, by doing good works and generally expending oneself on others. Its members promoted, and probably practised, a yin and yang measure-for-measure philosophy: God would show forgiveness, mercy and compassion, they said, only to the same extent that a believer demonstrated them him or herself. Because they believed Jesus had commanded it and God favoured it, they denounced wealth and advocated a self-deprecating way of life. They were predominantly Jewish. They believed Jewish Law was still valid and should still be followed by cult members. They were, however, hostile towards those who, unable to see any value in the new cult, remained within Judaism. The sect invented anachronistic stories about Jesus sparring with the Jewish leaders of their time, half a century or more after Jesus died.

Though it is unlikely any of members of this sect had ever encountered Jesus in person, they believed he was going to return to the Earth while they were still alive in order to judge humankind. Naturally he would vindicate them while condemning all others, particularly the rich and powerful. He would do this because they were the ones who were doing as he commanded – helping the sick, the hungry and the homeless – which would ensure the returning Lord would look on them favourably. None of them had seen the resurrected Jesus but nevertheless they valued the stories they heard about those who supposedly had, and they promoted these stories themselves.

How do we know this? Because this particular sect left behind a record of their beliefs. They imbued them with authority by putting them into the mouth of a preacher who had lived more than fifty years earlier. Who knows, maybe he did say such things. The sect either believed that Jesus had actually contradicted Paul’s notion that the Jewish Law was no longer valid or they felt it necessary to to make Jesus say so themselves. Likewise, they rejected the magical mysticism preached by Paul that was beginning to take hold in those early days. The group’s beliefs were radically different and their writing specifically designed to counteract ideas they opposed with a passion.

Where will you find this group’s writings? In the bible, at the very start of the New Testament in the book called ‘The Gospel According to St Matthew’; this book is their writing, give or take the odd bit of tampering from later on. Matthew’s gospel details the sect’s beliefs about Jesus, their measure-for-measure morality, their recipe for righteousness and their beliefs about salvation and the coming judgement.* So different are these from Paul’s ideas that the gospel can only have been created to counteract his doctrines. The community that produced Matthew had no truck either with Paul’s theology or his soteriology.

Read Matthew for yourself and see how much it is at odds with Paul. The discrepancy is there for all to see, yet Christians have always convinced themselves, if they’ve thought about it at all, that not only is Matthew’s gospel compatible with the mumbo-jumbo that follows it, but that its ‘good news’ and Paul’s are identical. Nothing could be further from the truth.

 

* I’m happy to provide chapter and verse from Matthew’s gospel to support all I say about it.

God’s forgiveness doesn’t last forever

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Apologies that there hasn’t been a post for a little while. I’m compiling articles from the last three years into a new book – probably to be called Jesus Exposed – which is taking up a lot of my time. I realise that , in spite of my reading and re-reading these posts over and over again before I publish them, there are far too many typos. I apologise for those too!

Recently I came across a couple of verses in Hebrews (10.26-27) which I thought were interesting in terms of Christians who repeatedly ‘miss the mark’ and behave immorally (‘sin’ to use their esoteric terminology) and think that all they have to do is repeatedly ask God to forgive them. Well, the author of Hebrews seems to think differently:

For if we go on sinning deliberately after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a fearful expectation of judgment, and a fury of fire that will consume the adversaries.

The writer of one of the weirdest books in the bible (there’s some stiff competition) says that those who go on deliberately sinning effectively negate the effect of Christ’s salvation (‘here no longer remains a sacrifice for sins’). Those who do are already up God’s shit creek without a paddle or prayer (or, if you prefer, with ‘fearful expectation of judgment, and a fury of fire that will consume [them]’) – with no hope of forgiveness.

As I said a few posts back, repeat offenders – Christian child-abusers, fraudsters and bullies – who run to God every time they ‘sin’, aren’t going to get anywhere with him. They wouldn’t even if their chosen fantasy were true.

 

Edited for clarity 26th April

 

Were the gospels ‘fact checked’ by those in the know?

Ashes

In a discussion I’ve been having with Don Camp on his blog-site, Biblical Musings, Don has been arguing that the Gospels are completely accurate because a) he wants to believe this and b) the Gospels ‘could have been fact checked by people living who had known Jesus and who had heard the Apostles teach this very story for many years. New and embellished versions would not have been acceptable to these people’ (my emphasis).

Clearly this is not so; John’s gospel presents a very different, highly embellished Jesus from that of the synoptic gospels (a divine being who is preoccupied with himself as opposed to a prophet concerned with ushering in God’s Kingdom), yet nowhere do we have any record of anyone saying, ‘hang on, one of these isn’t right – this isn’t how I remember things.’ Similarly, Paul’s itinerary (not to mention his theology) in Acts differs from that he talks about in his letters. Yet there’s no surviving evidence that anyone pulled Luke up about his inaccuracies.

If it didn’t happen, as far as we are aware, for these discrepancies, then why should we suppose it would have happened for others? It isn’t legitimate to hail the absence of ‘fact checking’ as evidence that everyone thought the gospel writers’ versions of Jesus’ life, despite multiple contradictions and evident embellishments, were reasonably accurate. This absence is not evidence that there was nothing to be disputed; it can be explained in numerous other, more likely ways (no-one was particularly interested in the discrepancies and embellishments because the gospels are literary creations, not historical accounts; the objections weren’t recorded or simply didn’t survive; they were quashed by orthodoxy and so on.)

Still Don insists ‘nobody in the know’ objected to anything in the gospels at the time they were written. This of course is mere conjecture on his part. We simply don’t know whether anyone objected, who did and who didn’t. Perhaps the disciples did object but were overruled (just as they were by Paul over other matters); maybe they objected to being portrayed as idiots, when their interpretation of what Jesus was about was being diminished, and nobody actually cared; maybe they didn’t mind the mythologising of their leader; maybe they never even saw the gospels, written as they were well away from Palestine and long after the events they portray; maybe most of the disciples were dead by the time the gospels were in circulation – life expectancy was short. Yes, I’m hypothesising here, just as Don does, my conjecture being every bit as valid as his.

Finally, Don refuses to see the errors, discrepancies and contradictions in the Gospels, as well as the mythologising of their central figure. Even with their inconsistencies, inaccuracies and flights of fancy (that may or may not have been objected to), Don maintains the Gospels are still ‘true’ and ‘inspired’. He really knows how to stretch a definition to the point of meaninglessness.

As if that’s not bad enough, he now he wants to pray for me.