The Walking Dead

Let’s take a look at another of the stories from the gospels. This time the miraculous rising from the dead of ‘saints’ at the time of Jesus’ death (or maybe at the time of his resurrection…): 

And Jesus cried out again with a loud voice, and yielded up His spirit. And behold, the veil of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom; and the earth shook and the rocks were split. The tombs were opened, and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised; and coming out of the tombs after His resurrection they entered the holy city and appeared to many (Matthew 27:51-53).

Yes, it’s another case of Matthew making up a story from bits of Jewish scripture. We know it’s made up not only because of its fantastical nature, but because no-one else thought to record it; no eye-witness, no Roman official, no Jewish priest, no writer of Q. Not Paul, who says Jesus was the first to be resurrected; not even Mark, who doesn’t include it and therefore probably didn’t know of it; nor Luke, who omits it when he copies chunks of Matthew; nor John, who invents his own raising-the-dead story, the one about Lazarus.

So where does Matthew find his inspiration? There are many verses in Jewish scripture that declare YHWH will resurrect his people; Ezekiel 37: 12-14 for example:

Therefore prophesy and say to them: ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord (YHWH) says: My people, I am going to open your graves and bring you up from them; I will bring you back to the land of Israel. Then you, my people, will know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves and bring you up from them. I will put my Spirit in you and you will live, and I will settle you in your own land. Then you will know that I the Lord have spoken, and I have done it, declares the Lord.’”

And Isaiah 26:19:

But your dead will live, Lord; their bodies will rise – let those who dwell in the dust wake up and shout for joy!

Matthew ignores the fact that ‘prophecies’ like this are about the revival of the Jewish nation. He rips them out of context and creates his bizarre, Jesus-related story from them. Bizarre not only because of resurrected dead bodies, but because he has the tombs crack open as Jesus dies, only for the revived occupants to wait more than 36 hours to emerge from them. The poor buggers lie around in their tombs, alive again for a day and a half before they make it out into the outside world (Some scholars think the delay is an interpolation introduced by a later scribe who didn’t want the dead guys getting ahead of Jesus.)

Of course, the story is symbolic. It didn’t happen (though there are those who insist that it did); Matthew invented it, like most of his gospel. It’s another literary recreation of ‘prophecies’ from scripture, intended this time to show that Jesus was the Promised One who was about to bring about the great resurrection of the dead. The verses in their original context say nothing of the sort, of course. There’s no verse in the Jewish scriptures that does (though no doubt there are those who believe there is.)

So, yet another story, yet another symbolic fantasy. We could play this game endlessly: name the gospel story – the resurrection included – and it can be shown to have been created around lines lifted out of context from the Jewish scriptures.

 

 

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The Jesus Story v. Reality

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Whenever the Jesus story comes face to face with reality, it fails. The nativity stories, which only Matthew and Luke think to invent include, are a case in point.

  • Luke tells us the Emperor Augustus decreed there should be a census in what we now know as 4BC. He didn’t. The closest Roman census was in AD6, ten years later and it didn’t entail hordes of people trailing back to their ancestral village.
  • Matthew claims that Herod was so enraged about the birth of the ‘royal’ baby that he killed all little boys under two years old. Except he didn’t. This never happened.
  • According to the same story, a host of supernatural beings appeared announcing that a young woman who’d never had sex with a man had given birth, while a wandering star shone directly over her house.

Where in reality do these kinds of things happen? That’s right: in myths and stories. They are typical literary tropes found in fantasy fiction. The ‘miraculous’ events of the nativity are of this genre.

  • Christians who delude themselves into thinking theirs is an intellectual faith concede the nativity is mythical, its events symbolic. They’re not usually so hot on what they’re symbolic of but say the story conveys truth. Still, they insist, the rest of the Jesus story is true. Evangelicals go even further and say it’s literally true. So, Jesus walking on water really happened (or if your faith is, oxymoronically, intellectual faith, it didn’t.) After all, the illusionist Dynamo walked across the Thames a few years ago (see it here), and if he could walk on water then how much more capable of doing that was the Son of God. Except the modern illusionist‘s feat was – yes, you guessed it – an illusion. So even if Jesus did the same thing, his trick was also an illusion. Those who say the story is included in Mark and Matthew because it’s actually only a parable about faith (or something) are conceding, again, that it didn’t actually happen.
  • Likewise when Jesus turns water into wine, calms the storm, raises the dead, chats with apparitions of long dead Jewish folk-heroes and does every other ‘miracle’ he’s credited with. If they’re only symbolic then, by definition, they didn’t happen. Nor did they happen, if, as Evangelicals believe, they’re being passed off as real events. ‘Miracles’ do not happen in reality. Never have, never will. They happen only in stories.

Well, okay, more enlightened Christians might say, but nonetheless Jesus conveyed to the world what God wanted us to know. He was wise and compassionate and told us how our sins could be forgiven. Except his wisdom comes directly from Jewish scriptures; he had nothing new to say. He was no more compassionate than anyone else and could in fact be an absolute s**t. He was inconsistent across the gospels about how sins were forgiven and much of his teaching in the original Gospel (Mark’s) is lifted from Paul or reflects the beliefs of the early Christ cult. Jesus the holy man is a construct – or rather a series of constructs, a literary device, not a real man.

So, okay; the nativity didn’t happen as depicted. The astounding feats attributed to Jesus didn’t happen and Jesus is whoever the various gospel writers and Paul want to make him. Nothing we’ve seen so far is factually, historically or really (as in reality) true.

But, the crucifixion and resurrection are! Oh yes. The rest is made up, but these two events most certainly are not.

  • Even though Jesus’ trial is historically inaccurate and is, as a consequence, highly implausible.
  • Even though there was no-one to record Jesus’s snappy repartee (or silence depending on which gospel you read) with Pilate or Herod.
  • Even though there was no such Roman custom as releasing a prisoner on the Passover.
  • Even though the synoptics have Jesus crucified on Friday while John says it was a Thursday.
  • Even though characters like Barabbas, Joseph of Arimathea, Mary Magdelene and the ‘disciple whom Jesus loved’ are evidently and entirely fictional.
  • Even though there was no eclipse of the sun that lasted for hours.
  • Even though there was no earthquake that shook zombies loose from their graves before Jesus had a chance to rise and shine himself.

Such things are not historical. They’re not even feasible. They did not happen in reality. Well, if not the crucifixion per se, Christians say, then definitely the resurrection: that most unlikely of all unlikely events. That really happened.

  • Even though the reports of it are completely at odds with one another.
  • Even though angels are involved once again.
  • Even though Jesus behaves entirely like a ghost, walking through closed doors, altering his appearance and vanishing at will.
  • Even though he levitates into the clouds.
  • Even though some of the disciples find it impossible to believe he’s back.
  • Even though dead people rise only in stories, myths, legends and fantasies.
  • Even though, in reality, dead people do not come back to life after three days, which is why Jesus didn’t either.

Still, I’m sure I’ll be told when I go to a carol service with my friends in a few days, that the story of Jesus’ birth, emotionally powerful as it is, is true from start to finish. Why? Because people’s capacity for believing fantasy stories knows no bounds.

Bible Truths

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If ever there was evidence that Christianity is an entirely human affair it’s the way believers constantly disagree with each another. If the bible really was, in some way, ‘the Word of God’ (they don’t all agree even with what this might mean) then surely it would offer greater clarity on what being a Christian entails. Given what’s at stake – heaven or hell, a life of fullness or one spent mired in sin, helping the poor and hungry or self-indulgence – you’d think God would be just a little more precise about what his expectations are.

Instead, what do we get? A rag bag collection of myths, pseudo-history, folklore, poetry, fantasy, yet more pseudo-history, letters, forgeries and invective. Muddled and inconsistent about what the Supreme Being requires of his creation, it ranges from a forever agreement that says following a set of arbitrary laws is what he wants, along with a spot of male genital-mutilation (Genesis 17.1-16), to a new scheme that involves magical incantation (Romans 10.19), to yet another that says helping those in need is what he requires (Matthew 25.31-40).

I’ve been involved at different times in my life with writing policy documents for a range of organisations. Despite creating what I’d estimate to be around 50 of these documents, it never occurred to me to cobble together myth, stories, letters and fake news in even one of them. They needed to be precise, detailing how the organisation worked, what its take was on various areas of operation and, most importantly spelling out for people as clearly as possible what was expected of them. This precision was important; the documents had to be water-tight and open to as little interpretation as possible. They couldn’t allow for the possibility of one part of the organisation acting in one way in a given area while another acted completely differently in that same area.

If I, a fallible human, could manage this more often than not, why couldn’t God?

Why could he not declare definitively how old the Earth is so as to leave no room for dispute?

Why could he not set out his requirements for pleasing him as one single, unequivocal list? (he’s not averse to bullet points – see his ten commandments, of which he manages to present two largely incompatible versions, both of them fairly useless.)

Why could he not ‘inspire’ scribes contemporaneous with the figures in the Old Testament to record what happened as they happened and not centuries later?

Why could he not ‘inspire’ eye-witnesses of Jesus ‘ministry’ to write about it at the time, instead of waiting decades before giving the job to strangers who’d never met him?

Why could he not say decisively what happens to people when they die?

Why could he not present one definitive way of how to get in his good books instead of offering a range of confused alternatives, about which he is prone to change his mind?

And so on and so forth…

If the managing director of an organisation produced policy documents as shoddy and shambolic as God’s they wouldn’t last five minutes. Nor would the organisation.

But of course God didn’t write, inspire or otherwise cause the bible to be written. It’s human through and through, culturally-bound (to a range of ancient cultures) and not intended by its myriad authors to be a single volume. This fact doesn’t trouble most Christians; they read it selectively, if they read it at all, and believe what they are told about it. Others, who are aware of the bible’s shortcomings, have a variety of ways of negotiating around them. All of these entail great dollops of cognitive dissonance. We’ll look at some of them next time.