A Christian Writes

A Christian commenter writes –

…there is only one issue of primary importantance. That is is Jesus the Son of Man and the Son of God and my/your Savior. If so, every other issue pales.

Neil, you and many other atheists seem to think Christianity is broken up into a multitude of pieces that do not agree and do not get along because of disagreements on doctrine and practice. That is actually untrue. When it gets right down to it, only the one issue is important. And that means there are billions of Christians in fellowship. That is the church.

If you missed that in your time as a Christian, I wonder if you really were or whether you were merely religious. Now, among the religious there are significant differences and divisions. Religious Roman Catholics disagree with religious Baptists, and Pentecostals with Greek Orthodox and so on. But that is religion. Christians in all those denominations agree and can have wonderful fellowship when it is about Jesus.

And I respond –

This is nothing more than the No True Scotsman fallacy: ‘those who don’t practise Christianity in the way I (or my sect/church) approves of are not true Christians; they’re merely ‘religious’.’ Having thus discounted those who ‘disprove’ the rule, the rule now gives every impression of working. Brilliant!

You assert that ‘only one issue is important… is Jesus… my/your Savior?’ No, he’s not. He’s nobody’s. Just because Paul and those who came after him decided he was doesn’t mean he is. He’s long gone. Dead. Even so, he doesn’t claim in the synoptic gospels that he came to be anyone’s personal Savior. For synoptic Jesus the only thing of ‘importantance’ was working towards the Kingdom of God on Earth. ‘Seek ye first the Kingdom of Heaven, and his righteousness, and all these other things shall be added unto you.’ For some in the early church, the ‘only issue of importance’ was obeying Jesus’ commands, including, presumably, seeking first the Kingdom on Earth (1 John 2:3-6).

The evidence shows, however, that Christians have never managed to do this (not even after discounting those they disagree with). Just look at Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. The church has been an unholy mess since the very beginning. It continues to be to this day: take a look at Christian Research Network, which denounces fellow Jesus-lovers on a daily basis.

You delude yourself if you think the ‘true’ church, then as now, is in complete harmony, enjoying blissful love-ins with Jesus while everything else, differences in doctrine and practice included, conveniently fade away. But then, you’ve already bought into one of the most perfidious delusions ever foisted on human beings so I don’t suppose another one matters all that much.

 

How We Got The New Testament

Recycled pictures, new post.

Once upon a time, there was, possibly, a bloke called Yeshua Bar Yosef. Maybe there was, maybe there wasn’t, but either way, a couple of other blokes, one called Simon (or maybe Cephas or maybe Peter), came to believe that Yeshua had returned from the dead and had appeared to them, alive. This was probably all in their heads and what they saw was at most a blinding light, if they saw anything at all. This was certainly the case for a different bloke, Saul (or maybe Paul) who came along later. He wrote about his experiences and admitted they were all in his mind.

This Simon-Peter-Cephas and maybe one or two others convinced themselves that Yeshua was God’s special emissary and would save them from something, somehow or other. They told other people this and, being gullible, some of these other people believed that Simon-Peter-Cephas and his mates really had seen Yeshua alive again. They started to believe Yeshua would save them too. Saul-Paul, meanwhile, wrote letters to the people he’d persuaded to believe in his version of events – it was a bit different from what Simon-Peter-Cephas and co believed – and, writing in Greek, rendered Yeshua as Iesous (‘Jesus’ came much later when the ‘J’ was invented in the 16th century.) Paul thought Iesous was a celestial being he called ‘the Christ’. He taught that this Christ would soon be coming down to the Earth to set up God’s Kingdom here. Even though they were obviously a bit rubbish, Saul-Paul’s letters were copied multiple times by hand, which is when errors began to creep in. In some places, the letters were deliberately altered.

Other people wanted to get in on the act, so they wrote letters too, pretending they were Saul-Paul. Sometimes these letters said the exact opposite of what the real Saul-Paul wrote. His weren’t the only letters to be forged either. Fifty or more years after the entire scam had got underway, someone pretending to be Simon-Peter-Cephas sent letters as if they were from the man himself. Needless to say there were cultists daft enough to believe it. There were others who wrote letters too, people like James and John. James didn’t see eye-to-eye with Saul-Paul and contradicted many of the things he said.

About 40 years after Simon-Peter-Cephas thought he’d seen the dead-but-alive Yeshua-Iesous-Jesus, somebody in a different country decided to write a back story for the character. He didn’t know much about Yeshua-Iesous-Jesus, what he’d said and done and whatnot, but that didn’t deter him. He borrowed bits from Saul-Paul’s letters and Greek myths and set about it. He scoured the Jewish scriptures for anything that sounded like it might be a prediction of Yeshua-Iesous-Jesus and his supposed escape from death. He made up episodes for him based on these completely unrelated scraps of scripture. He forgot to sign his work, however, and it wasn’t until years later that someone else decided this author’s name should be ‘Mark’.

A couple of other anonymous dudes liked what ‘Mark’ had done when inventing his Yeshua-Iesous-Jesus story but thought they could make a better job of it themselves. The first of these, who would later be called Matthew, lifted most of Mark’s effort (which is how we know ‘Matthew’ wasn’t an eye-witness; an eye-witness wouldn’t plagiarise most of the story from someone who wasn’t) and then went overboard with the prediction/prophecy thing that Mark had started. He found even more spurious bits of scripture and made up a whole lot of new stories about Yeshua-Iesous-Jesus from them. Later still, ‘Luke’ wrote his version of the story, using Mark and Matthew’s accounts and inventing a few new episodes himself. This same person went on to write a fabricated history of the Yeshua-Iesous-Jesus cult, making up stories and speeches for caricatures of Simon-Peter-Cephas and Saul-Paul.

The fourth person to try his hands at writing a script for Yeshua-Iesous-Jesus decided to completely reimagine the character. Strictly speaking, this ‘gospel’ was produced not by a single person but by a collective of cult members. Their Jesus was nothing like the one in the other three gospels. He was more a super-hero, whose special power was boasting about himself. This is the Jesus that, 70 years on, the cult wanted to believe in. Eventually, the name John would be attached to this fantasy, though this isn’t the same John who wrote letters nor the one who created the hallucinatory nightmare that would become the final book of the Bible.

These various letters and stories circulated round the Roman Empire wherever members of the new cult met. Eventually, someone hit upon the idea of collecting them together as one volume. The first we hear of this is when a guy called  Marcion produced his own collection, round about AD140. Stupidly, he didn’t include the right ‘books’ and it wasn’t until AD367 that the collection we now know as the New Testament was first mentioned. This was ratified later that century by a group of men who had elevated themselves to positions of authority in the Church, as the cult was now calling itself. Despite claiming they had been guided by the Holy Spirit, these learned men endorsed the inclusion of several forgeries. Neither did they see fit to arrange the books in the order they’d been written, giving the impression that the accounts of Yeshua-Iesous-Jesus’ life existed before Simon-Peter-Cephas and Saul-Paul’s innervisions that had sparked the whole thing in the first place.

Jump forward a few hundred years and the New Testament, as it was now known, had come to be regarded, by some, as the infallible, inerrant and authoritative Word of God, which clearly it is not. These epithets stuck, however, and are still held to be accurate descriptors of the New Testament by people who have stopped thinking for themselves.

So there we have it: how we got the New Testament –

  • It wasn’t written by eye-witnesses.
  • Its accounts of Jesus’ life are largely fictional.
  • It owes much to fanatics who were prone to visions.
  • It is given to wild speculation, offered without a scrap of evidence.
  • It contradicts itself.
  • It includes many fakes and forgeries.
  • It was banged together by men who didn’t really know what they were doing.

And after that, everyone lived delusionally ever after. The End.

God’s Megaphone?

from his book, The Problem Of Pain

Does the Christian God use pain to draw people to himself? Assuming for a moment that such a God exists, does he use human suffering to make followers for himself?

There is no evidence in the Bible to suggest he does. To be sure, the Bible has a fair amount to say about pain. It claims that suffering is a means by which God either chastens Christians (Hebrews 12.7) or strengthens them (Romans 5.3-5), but this is exclusively for people who already believe. The Bible does not say non-believers are afflicted as a means of drawing them closer to God; the idea is unbiblical.

Let’s assume then that while this notion finds no support in the bible, Christians have learnt over the centuries, perhaps though extra-biblical revelation, that God does use pain in this way. What does this tell us about God? That he’s a being whose principal way of making human beings pay attention to him is by causing (or allowing) them to suffer frequently unbearable pain and anguish.

What sort of God is this? Not one who loves the world and cares for humans far more than he does mere sparrows (Matthew 6.26). He’s more an unpleasant, sadistic bully: the jock who backs you up against the wall, grips your balls and squeezes hard.

Maybe that’s how it is. The God who created the universe is just such a being; a moral monster, as commenter koseighty puts it. It’s easy to see how he might be: human beings suffer, yet there’s (supposedly) a God who loves them; therefore pain and suffering must at the very least be sanctioned by God, or, more likely, delivered by him. This, after all, is the story of the Old Testament. The God so arrived at though is a thoroughly human creation, a means of minimising cognitive dissonance by reconciling human suffering and a God who supposedly cares.

One more assumption is needed. Let’s assume this time that despite the odds, this character really exists. Does his strategy work? Does inflicting pain and anguish on people make them, as Lewis suggests, cry out to the One doing (or allowing) the inflicting and compel them to love him? It seems unlikely; I can’t find any evidence online of anyone claiming that pain or anguish brought them to God. From a personal perspective, I can honestly say that in times of distress or suffering I have never, post-deconversion, called out to God or any supernatural entity for help. I’ve never interpreted my suffering as his calling me closer and have never, since escaping Christianity, succumbed to his malicious charms. (What I did do occasionally, following my deconversion, was to convince myself that my suffering was a punishment from God – for leaving him behind, being gay or something I’d done. These feelings disappeared when I embraced fully the fact that the Christian God isn’t real.)

Where does this leave the Christian with, as Lewis puts it, ‘the problem of pain’? How do they reconcile a loving God who allows or even causes human beings to suffer? They can’t. Instead they spout empty platitudes that they think let their indifferent, imaginary God off the hook. Just look at the meaningless theo-babble religious leaders came up with in 2004 after a tsunami hit Indonesia, killing 227,898 people.

Leave God out of the equation, however, and there are far better explanations for why humans suffer. ‘Shit happens’ is far more convincing than anything the religious have to offer. Physical pain is the body’s reaction to damage. It is an imperfect system that frequently overreacts or fires up even after damage is repaired (I know this having fibromyalgia). That’s what it is to have, to be, a physical body. Anguish comes from random acts of nature, the violence and cruelty we inflict on each other and the death of loved ones, much of which is beyond human control. ‘Thoughts and prayers’ are useless in ameliorating this kind of suffering. Measures to restrict people’s access to weapons undoubtedly helps, as it has in countries with politicians with sufficient strength and intelligence to enact gun-control legislation. Without it, as in Ulvalde last week, more children will die, more parents will experience terrible anguish and another massacre is inevitable. God won’t stop it.

Suffering is not symbolic of something else; it is not ‘God’s megaphone’ or an opportunity for others to point those afflicted to Christ’s light (or any other bullshit that involves the supernatural.) Pain simply is. It is our lot as physical bodies to endure or alleviate as best we can.

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.

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. 

Responding to a Christian

I responded to comments by our resident cultist, Don Camp, who replied with the following (and more: see comments). I want to pick up (in blue) on some of the points he makes:

I originally asked Don: why is it that whenever anyone asks you to provide evidence for your beliefs, or to confirm what those beliefs actually are, you invariably side-step the issue.

Don: That seems to be the procedure (your procedure, Don?) here and on most atheist blogs, I might add. I really think that I have answered that question clearly enough to be understood (you’ve responded to some questions but have provided evidence for very little of what you’ve claimed. Bible quotes are not evidence.) If not, there is my blog post. But I would ask the same and have of all of you. What do you believe to be true about life and reality? And why or what evidence do you have to support that belief?

Don, there’s ten years’ worth of blog posts on Rejectingjesus, many of which are about what I believe and the evidence I have for those beliefs. I’m not going to reiterate all of them here for your benefit. If you’re interested you could read the posts here, here, here, here and here. I suspect you’re not though; this is just another tactic to deflect the question away from yourself. Don’t you think it reasonable when you launch your sermonettes on other people’s blogs that they ask you to supply evidence for the beliefs you’re promoting? 

Don: I usually get what, I believe, Ark said when I asked about his evidence for Materialism: Everything we know has natural causes, so to presume that the whole universe has a natural cause reasonably follows. (My paraphrase) That is honest and clear. But that is the very same kind of evidence I’ve provided for my worldview. You, Neil, have not provided even that much. Usually I get something like: Atheism, is about what we don’t believe, and we don’t believe there is evidence for God. The trouble is that is negative that conveniently sidesteps the question.

So you do get answers to your questions (so what you moaning about?) I concur with Ark. However, you do not provide the same sort of evidence. You generally rely on the argument from incredulity: I can’t see how something so amazing as the universe could have come into existence on its own, therefore God must’ve done it.’ This is not evidence. You then make the further unfounded claim that this God must be your God who magically created everything via the agency of his Son. Whatever this means, it is not evidence. (Before you say you don’t do this, just check out your further comment below.)

Neil: How about answering my question: do you subscribe to Paul’s first century view that ‘the world’ is governed by wicked powers and principalities that hover around us causing all sorts of mayhem…

Don: No and Yes. No, I don’t think that people are governed by those powers, but they are influenced by them. Yes, I believe there are powers that influence people. And I believe that people can so give themselves to that influence that I would say they are governed by them. (my emphasis). So no prevarication here then! Now how about answering mine. Do you believe that reality is purely material? See above and the posts I directed you to. There is no evidence for the supernatural.

Neil:  Could only a blood sacrifice, in God’s eyes ameliorate (the effects of these demons)?

Don: No. Those powers do not cause sin. We do. (And that I believe is really Paul’s view.) Right. So you know what was really Paul’s view, which, it turns out, is not the one expressed in Ephesians 2:1-3 & 6.11-13. (Addendum: it’s widely acknowledged that Paul didn’t actually write Ephesians. It’s a later forgery based on Colossians.)

Don: No. I believe that only forgiveness can ameliorate sin. The sacrifice of the Lord Jesus is the act of forgiveness made visible. Does your believing make it so? Where does the bible actually say this?

Neil: where is your evidence that this (Paul’s worldview) is reality?

Don: I am not sure what “this” means. There are too many possible referents. If you replace that with a specific, I’ll answer.

It’s clear and specific, Don. We were discussing Paul’s worldview. I asked if you believed it and if so, what evidence you had that ‘this’, Paul’s demon-infested world, was real. You’re side stepping again. 

Me: Or how about answering Ark’s question about whether you believe Jesus was the creator of the universe and what evidence there is for such a belief?

Don: I don’t recall that question exactly (!) But the answer is I believe that God created the universe through the agency of his Son and the earth within it. (And I think that is the crux of our differences). You’re not kidding. 

Don: Evidence “succinctly” is, to use a metaphor, his fingerprints are all over it. Is a metaphor evidence? I don’t think so. It’s a literary device. In any case, every other religion that claims a creator God says the same thing. 

HOW DO YOU THINK THE UNIVERSE CAME TO BE, AND WHAT EVIDENCE IS THERE FOR SUCH A BELIEF? AND HOW DO YOU ACCOUNT FOR THE DYSFUNCTION OF HUMANITY THAT CAUSES ALL THE CHAOS AND DESTRUCTION MORALLY AND SOCIALLY? AND FINALLY, WHAT IS THE REMEDY?

My God. You’re gone all caps lock. In answer to your very important questions, see my response above. To summarise:

It is largely irrelevant what I THINK about the origin of the universe. It’s possible, however, that the universe has always existed in some form. You claim this for your God when there’s no evidence he exists; assuming those same qualities for something that does is a more realistic prospect. It is indeed what a number of scientists think. (I expect you’ll know better).

The ‘dysfunction of humanity.’ Is it dysfunctional? Many of us are kind and decent. Humanity is what it is, and it is what it is because we’re evolved primates.

The remedy for what, Don; for what we are? It’s quite likely there isn’t one. Jesus certainly isn’t it. History teaches us that Christianity has only provided some of us with an excuse to behave even more reprehensibly (Putin claims to be a Christian albeit a Catholic; he says one of the reasons he’s invaded Ukraine is to impose traditional Christian values on the country.)  If anything is going to improve us, it’s education; it has civilised us to a significant extent but still has a lot to overcome. 

That’s it. Now go and read those old posts before writing your next sermonette. 

Where did Luke get his Bethlehem story from?

Previously on RejectingJesus:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More Matthew Make-Believe

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Meaning Of Matthew’s Mistakes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And if some, why not all?

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.