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.

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Still more of the Bible written sdrawkcab

The first mention of the Last Supper and the ritual established at it is in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians (11.23-26):

For I received from the Lord that which I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus in the night in which he was betrayed took bread; and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way he took the cup also after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.

As David Madison points out, Paul happily admits he invented this – or, rather, he worked it up from one of his hallucinations. He certainly didn’t hear it from the people who’d known Jesus when he was alive; it’s unlikely they would have subscribed to such barbarity. As Madison shows, the idea of consuming blood, even symbolically, would have been anathema to most Jews (Deuteronomy 12.23 etc); it’s a ritual that originates in pagan worship. It’s there, for example, in Mithraism, which flourished in, among other places, Tarsus, where Paul came from. Evidently, celebrating Christ’s sacrifice by eating his body and drinking his blood took hold in the churches Paul established and by the time the gospels came to be written, its origin story was sent back in time to be part of them. This kind of thing happens in comic books all the time.

It’s quite possible that the stories of the resurrection developed the same way. We know that later followers of Jesus had visions that they interpreted as being of ‘Christ’. We know this because Paul refers to his experience a few times and also implies that other people had visions similar to his own. Were these hallucinations the only ‘sightings’ of the Risen Christ? We have no first-hand, eye-witness accounts of any other sort. Given that bodies don’t ever rise from the grave, especially not after a couple of days, it is more than likely they were all imaginary. It looks suspiciously like later encounters of Christ – all entirely within people’s heads – were written back into the gospel accounts to become the resurrection. Some of these were ‘firmed up’ to seem like encounters with a real person, which led to the invention of the empty-tomb, while others weren’t; a number make little attempt to convey an encounter with a real flesh-and-blood individual.

Bur wait, you say. There were believers in the resurrection before Paul. Surely the original followers of Jesus – the disciples, Mary Magdalene – saw the Risen Jesus. That’s why they believed in him, why they gave their lives to his cause, why they were prepared to die for their faith.

Well, no. We don’t know that this is what the original followers of Jesus thought or experienced. Why don’t we? Because:

  • The original followers left no records (or did they?)
  • Their community was wiped out by the Romans in 70CE.
  • Their brand of the faith, whatever it was, was obliterated by Paul’s Christ cult.
  • They had plenty of other reasons for believing in Jesus.

Seemingly Jesus told them he’d be back soon, bringing God’s Kingdom with him (Matthew 16.27-28 etc). And then, as he promised, the meek would inherit the Earth and his original followers would the rule the planet with him (Matt 19.28). Good enough – though completely daft reasons – why, after his death, these same followers holed-up in Jerusalem to await his re-appearance (through the clouds no less). The unlikely resurrection scenario, if they were even aware of it outside of their difficult meetings with Paul, must have seemed a poor second to the possibility of ruling the world in the here and now alongside their returned Lord and Master.

So, it’s entirely plausible that the resurrection, like Jesus’ prophecy of the temple’s destruction and the body-and-blood ritual of the Last Supper were invented decades after he lived by those in the Christ cult. It has long been known that the experiences of those in the early church, particularly those promoted by Paul, were written back into the gospels when they came to be created years after Jesus’ and the disciples’ deaths. Much of what you read there is fiction, propaganda served up, and believed to this day, as history.