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.

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Christianity: a failure from the very beginning

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Christianity just doesn’t deliver. Jesus doesn’t deliver. None of his promises that I outlined last time have ever produced the goods. Not surprising really when he’s been dead for the past two millennia. He’s no more likely to deliver than anyone else who’s been regarded as a god by misguided devotees (and there’s plenty of them).

Yet for those 2000 years Christians have insisted that he does, even when there isn’t a scrap of evidence he’s listened to a single word they’ve said, answered even one of their prayers, enabled them to heal the sick or helped them move mountains – any of the stuff he promised he’d do. So why do they insist he really does? Partly because many of them haven’t a clue that he even said these things. Discussing their faith with Christians online, they often tell me that Jesus never said, for example, that God would give them whatever they ask for or would make their lives better or give them the ability to do miracles greater than Jesus did himself (which of course he does, in Mark 11.24, Matthew 11.28 and John 14.12-14 respectively). In short, they are ignorant of what the bible actually says and all the preposterous magical promises it makes.

Those who do know of its promises have a range of excuses for why they never happen; they were only meant for the early church; today’s believers don’t have enough faith; they were only ever intended metaphorically; God is currently withholding his good will (usually because Christians are too tolerant of everyone else’s ‘sin’). The fact is the promises of Christianity have never delivered.

I’ve been reading Bart D. Ehrman’s The Triumph Of Christianity, where, for entirely different reasons, he lists the problems that beset the church in Corinth (p291) that Paul addresses in his first letter to them. Here’s a summary:

Serious divisions within the church, with different members following different leaders (1 Corinthians 1.12)

Various forms of sexual immorality (1 Corinthians 5)

Men in the church visiting prostitutes and bragging about it (1 Corinthians 6)

Other men under the impression they shouldn’t have sex at all, not even with their wives (1 Corinthians 7)

Fractious arguments about whether Christians should eat meat from animals sacrificed to pagan gods (1 Corinthians 8 & 10)

Some women attending meetings without their heads covered (1 Corinthians 11)

The wealthy greedily eating the shared meals and leaving none for the less well-off (1 Corinthians 11)

Worship that was chaotic because those speaking in tongues were trying to show spiritual one-upmanship (1 Corinthians 12-14)

Members not using their spiritual gifts for the benefit of the community (1 Corinthians 12 & 13)

Some claiming they had already experienced ‘resurrection’ and so were more ‘saved’ than others (1 Corinthians 15)

Apart from one or two specifics, this could be the church of the 21st century! Paul, though, wrote his letter to the relatively small group of believers in Corinth around 54-55CE, a mere twenty or so years after Jesus’ death. Already by then, Christian communities were overcome with problems. There’s no indication they were experiencing the miracles Jesus promised, nor were they behaving like the ‘new creatures’ Paul’s says the Holy Spirit makes of believers:

If anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: the old has gone, the new is here! (2 Corinthians 5.17)

The behaviour of the Christians at Corinth was, by any standard, appalling; they seem to have no more understanding of morality, no more sense of charity, no more demonstration of brotherly love than the ‘heathens’ around them. And yet they were new creatures ‘in Christ’, believers in Jesus, vessels of the Holy Spirit. With all this supernatural support they really should have been doing better – much better – than they were.

I’ve often wondered why Paul didn’t just give up at this point, especially when other churches he wrote to had similar problems. Any rational person would have looked at how these new converts were behaving and would have concluded that the new religion simply wasn’t working. The promises Jesus made (if Paul was even aware of them) and the changes he himself said accompanied conversion simply weren’t happening. None of them had materialised, even at this early stage.

But instead, Paul soldiered doggedly on. He travelled far and wide drawing others into the cult and then had to write to them too, to tell them how to behave and what faith in his Christ actually entailed (see his letter to the Galatians, for example, and that to the church at Philippi). Didn’t Paul ask himself where the Holy Spirit was in all this? Where was the guidance and supernatural assistance promised by Jesus? Despite the airbrushed version of the early church presented in Acts, Paul’s letters tell us what it was really like: a complete disaster.

And so it continued. As Ehrman shows, people converted to Christianity in part because of its promises that believers would avoid hell and live forever in heaven instead. Many convert for the same reason today. With the zero success rate of all of its other promises, it’s not difficult to predict how Christianity’s assurances of eternal life are going to pan out.

Making Excuses for Jesus

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

Kingdom

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

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

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

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

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

The Kingdom of God it is not.

How to argue like a Christian (part two)

Street-preachers

Five more ‘arguments’ offered by Christians in defence of their insupportable beliefs:

You’re not entitled to speak because you have no objective basis for your morality; morality comes only from God/the Bible.

Except it doesn’t, of course; moral codes existed long before the Bible or even the invention YHWH, who is, in any case, morally bankrupt. This ‘most unpleasant character in all fiction’ ‘wallows’, if I might borrow the term, in genocide (1 Samuel 15.2-3 etc) and slavery (Leviticus 25.44-46; Exodus 21.20-21 ); he relishes the death penalty for the most minor infringements of his petty rules (Leviticus 24.16; Deuteronomy 21.18-21, etc ad nauseam); fails to keep his promises (Genesis 17.7; Mark 11.24); does nothing to relieve human or animal suffering and lets millions of children die needlessly, year in, year out. It just doesn’t suit his mysterious ways, apparently, to behave like any halfway-decent human being would.

And even if he were the morally-upright paragon of virtue Christians delude themselves into thinking he is, they would ignore his moral guidance at every turn, just as they do now. Ministers, priests, evangelists as well as run-of-the-mill believers are convicted every day of the most despicable of crimes (Bruce Gerenscer keeps a tally on his blog-site) and that’s before we get to the more exacting moral demands Jesus makes. Going the extra mile (Matt 5.41), loving neighbour (Mark 12.31) and enemy alike (Luke 6.27), giving to all who ask (Luke 6.30) – these most Christians simply ignore. ‘We’re forgiven, not perfect,’ they whimper, even though ‘perfect’ is precisely what their unreasonable saviour tells them to be (Matt 5.48). But then I’m probably quoting out of context again… or something.

You’ve been hurt in the past.

This weak, ad hominem response is the converse of the charge that you’re immoral; good cop as opposed to bad cop. The Christian who says this is all-seeing and all-knowing and is able to evaluate your entire psychology and personal history from a single comment you’ve made. They can tell that you’re only disputing an aspect of Christianity because obviously at some point in your past a Christian – who wasn’t really a true Christian – hurt you. Or maybe it was a church you once belonged to that let you down. Well, you’ve every right to feel hurt! But that doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with the True Faith™ or those who subscribe to it! And so your point is neatly invalidated; you’re only responding emotionally and you’ll get over it.

If there’s no God then life is meaningless.

Used extensively by some Christian blog-sites, this non-sequitur translates as, ‘I’m not going to address anything you say. My neediness demands there’s some point to life and I’ve decided that it comes from the fantasy I’ve bought into.’ Questions of whether that fantasy is actually true (which by definition it can’t be) and whether life is meaningless without it, are never considered. Believers’ need for the delusion to be true, their fear of working out meaning for themselves and their subsequent investment in Christianity’s empty promises, compel them to hide behind what is an essentially… er, meaningless solipsism.

Unbelievers have no right to criticise those who belong to Jesus.

Haven’t we? We put up with all the nonsense Christians spout, their attempts to influence everything from elections to what we can see on TV, from their opposition to gay rights, same-sex marriage, women’s rights, abortion and adoption issues to the restrooms people can or can’t use and their judging of the rest of us as hell-bound sinners. In return, we unbelievers are perfectly entitled to hold Christians accountable. At the risk of repeating myself, do they do what Jesus tells them to? Do they turn the other cheek (Matt 5.39)? Sell their possessions to give to the poor (Mark 10.21)? Give more than is demanded of them (Matt 5.40)? Avoid judging others so they’re not judged in return (Matt 7.1-3)?

What do you think?

You’re of the devil/an enemy of the cross/wilfully blind/apostate/a troll.

If all else fails (and it will) the faithful resort to an insult carefully selected from the extensive bank of Christian cliches. That way, there’s no need to engage the brain at all. God love ’em!

 

Good news? What good news?

Disciples

Here’s what we know so far:

  1. There is no evidence the disciples were martyred.

  2. There is no evidence the disciples were martyred simply for believing that someone they knew had returned from the dead. In the age in which they lived such a claim wouldn’t have been out of the ordinary. The gospel accounts themselves record instances of resurrections other than Jesus’ and of miraculous manifestations of the dead. This was how people thought.

  3. There is no evidence that believing a dead man was alive again was a capital offence. Really, who could possibly care? Even Paul did not suggest that, as Saul, he liked to persecute early believers because of this belief.

  4. The gospel preached by Jesus and his disciples was completely different from that promoted by Paul. Their good news was about the imminent arrival of the Kingdom of God, when the Romans would be overthrown and every injustice made right (Luke 13.30). And while they may not have made it public, Jesus and his friends believed they would be the judges and rulers of this new system.

  5. This ‘good news’ existed long before Jesus died and long before Paul came along to change its nature entirely (Matt 10.23).

  6. Matthew and Luke, while including resurrection stories inspired by ‘visions’ like Paul’s, preserve, as does Mark, Jesus’ apocalyptic teaching. His promise of the coming Kingdom and his private teaching that he and his disciples would rule the new age together remain a significant part of the synoptic gospels.

  7. Jesus was executed for his seditious views (Mark 15.2, 9 & 32; John 19.19-20)

  8. It is likely, if they were martyred at all, that the disciples were killed for the same reason.

There are further indications in the New Testament that the original ‘good news’ had nothing to do with a mystical salvation plan and that the disciples clung to this original message – they’d heard it from Jesus himself, after all – even as other interpretations began to supersede it. We’ll look at these indications next time.

The Eye-witness Fallacy

MaryM2

The falsehood that the gospels are in some way eye-witness reports just won’t go away. There is no evidence they are or even that they are based on reports by eye-witnesses. Scholars speak of ‘sources’ for all elements of the gospels (Mark, Q, M & L); these were almost certainly pre-existing written and oral traditions from before the gospels’ creation.

This really is problematic for those propagating the idea that the gospels are eye-witness accounts. If they were even so much as based on eye-witness reports, then why would they need to rely so heavily on other traditions? If, as is claimed here, the scattered gospel communities who wrote them were in some sort of immediate contact with the fanned-out eye-witnesses, then they would have no need to use sources and traditions from elsewhere. Yet they do; Matthew and Luke borrow extensively from a shared source (Q) and also from Mark, particularly for their resurrection stories.

This is akin to someone today interviewing witnesses to John F. Kennedy’s assassination, – a similar interval to that between Jesus and the gospels of Matthew, Luke and John – and then, before publication, replacing what the eye-witnesses say they saw with the more far-fetched elements of Oliver Stone’s movie JFK. If there were eye-witnesses to hand, there wouldn’t be any need to do this. It doesn’t make the slightest sense that the gospel writers would do so. Yet they do.

As far as the stories of the resurrection are concerned, it is much more likely they are based, not on any eye-witness accounts, but on the scant mentions of the mystical, risen Christ of the kind we find in Paul’s letters, filtered, primarily, through Mark. As such, they are a fleshing out (almost literally) of hearsay reports of a limited number of visions that, by the time the gospels came to be written, had embedded themselves in the traditions of the early church.

Famous Christian makes fatuous comments

Sentamu3

The Archbishop of York, John Sentamu, has spoken out on one of the most important issues of the day.

       Chemical warfare in Syria?

                                              Poverty?

                                                     The repercussions of Britain’s departure from the EU?

No, none of these. Chocolate Eggs. Or more precisely Chocolate Egg Hunts – those arranged by the National Trust in conjunction with chocolate manufacturers, Cadbury. This year, you see, these are not being promoted as Easter Egg Hunts but as Cadbury Egg Hunts.

And I’m sure you can appreciate just how significant this is. Because you see, without the name of a Germanic goddess of fertility (from which we also derive the word ‘oestrogen’) in the title of such a deeply spiritual activity, then, according to Sentamu, ‘faith is being airbrushed out of Easter.’ After all, chocolate eggs were such a crucial part of the original Christian Easter story, when the first thing the resurrected Jesus instructed his disciples to do was find all the Easter Eggs he’d hidden round the garden. And so it came to pass.

That’s why omitting the word ‘Easter’ from the Egg Hunt is, again according to silly old Sentamu, ‘tantamount to spitting on the grave’ of John Cadbury, who was there for that very first Easter but didn’t start making chocolate eggs until 1875.

But wait! Wasn’t John Cadbury a Quaker? And isn’t it the case that Quakers don’t celebrate ‘Easter’ because of its pagan associations? So Mr Cadbury is hardly likely to be upset, even if dead people could be, at his company’s alleged metaphorical grave spitting. Furthermore, might it just have been the case that those original Easter Eggs were – and remain – a cynical capitalist cash-in on a festival that the man himself didn’t actually believe in? Oh my, yes.

So, here’s all that spitting right back atcha, Senty – one in the eye for all your vacuous, self-promoting twaddle.

 

Next time: Why the side-lining of cute and cuddly Easter bunnies is an affront to the faith of many devout Christians, by Theresa May.