The original ‘good news’ had nothing to with any mystical salvation plan (part two)

Disciples2

Last time, I provided evidence that Jesus’ original ‘good news’ had nothing to do with any mystical salvation plan constructed around his supposed resurrection. My six references demonstrated that, even after his death, the disciples adhered to Jesus’ original message: God’s Kingdom was coming soon and they were going to rule over it. Here are six more reasons we can be sure this was the case:

7. Our earliest sources, Q and the gospel of Mark, do not give much credence to the resurrection as an actual event: Q records no sayings of the risen Jesus and Mark has no resurrection appearances; it ends with the women who discover the empty tomb deciding not to tell the disciples about it. In Mark’s gospel, then, the disciples are not even aware the tomb is empty, let alone that Jesus has returned from the dead. We can conclude from this that the community that produced Mark’s gospel, the supposed resurrection was not significant in and of itself.

8. Paul tells us that the disciple’s gospel was not the same as his, despite the fact he too believed the Kingdom wasn’t far off (1 Thessalonians 4:17). The disciples, he says in 2 Corinthians 11.4-5 and Galatians 1.6; 2.11-21, were preaching ‘a different gospel’. Different from his, certainly, but the same as the ‘good news’ Jesus proclaimed: Jewish people should prepare for the imminent arrival of God’s Kingdom on Earth (Mathew 9.35; 15.24), when, as Jesus himself had promised them, the disciples would judge the restored tribes of Israel and rule over them. It is, as we have seen, out of the question that they would jettison this aspect of the ‘good news’, given to them by Jesus himself.

9. Because the disciples – and Jesus’ brother James – saw the new Kingdom as intended for Jews only, as Jesus had before them (Matthew 10.23), they insisted that any Gentile converts must be circumcised; must become Jewish (Galatians 2.7). Paul, of course, objected to this requirement and throws tantrums about it in his letters (Galatians 5.1-12; Philippians 3.3). But like Jesus, the disciples saw no place for Gentiles, the unrighteous, in the new age; those who didn’t convert would, of necessity, be dispatched to eternal punishment (Matthew 25.31-46).

10. As far as the disciples were concerned, therefore, it was entirely for their own good that converted Gentiles be circumcised (Galatians 6.12-13) as this was their only guarantee of a place in the new Kingdom. What this tells us is that a salvation formula, such as that dreamt up by Paul, had no part in the disciples’ ‘good news’.

11. Wherever they appear – in Paul’s writing, the gospels, Acts – the disciples are portrayed as being at odds with an incantational, faith-based Christianity. The Bible attests, even with Paul’s new religion superimposed, that they held to a different gospel, a different sense of what Jesus’ life meant and a different notion of their place in the coming Kingdom. And wouldn’t they be the ones to know? They knew Jesus, spent time with him, listened to his teaching, bought into his misguided mission and had sufficient understanding of it to spread his ‘good news’ to fellow Jews, both while he was still alive and afterwards (Matthew 10.23; Luke 9.1-2).

12. The New Testament is testimony to the failure of everything Jesus and the disciples stood for; their ‘news’ that God was soon to turn the Earth over to the meek and that they would then rule the only people who mattered, the twelve tribes of Israel, with everyone else thrown into outer darkness (Luke 13:28). Jesus himself, of course, would return at some point to be top dog, God’s representative on Earth – his anointed one. None of this happened.

If only it had been allowed to rest there, we might not know today of Jesus and his mad ideas. Instead, Paul stepped in, reinterpreted the whole ridiculous enterprise and bequeathed the world a set of different but equally absurd beliefs. And the rest is history: religious wars, pogroms, inquisitions, suppression, superstition, clerical child abuse, Pat Roberston. Is this the Kingdom that Jesus and his closest associates foresaw? Decidedly not. But it is their legacy.

The original ‘good news’ had nothing to do with any mystical Salvation Plan ™

 

Pentecost

As I disussed last time, there are indications throughout the New Testament that Jesus’ original ‘good news’ had nothing to do with a mystical salvation plan. There are clues too 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.

Let’s take a look at the evidence:

  1. Jesus tells his chosen twelve, which includes Judas, that they will rule with him in the age to come (Matt 19.28). As Bart Ehrman points out1, the fact that Jesus evidently had no foreknowledge of Judas’ later betrayal means this promise undoubtedly goes back to Jesus – it is unlikely later believers would have made it up. Though their names vary between gospels, Jesus hand-picked twelve men to rule with him.

  2. He appoints twelve disciples quite specifically and later tells them privately that this is so they can judge and each rule one of the twelve tribes of Israel once God’s Kingdom arrives (Luke 22.30).

  3. When Judas kills himself, the remaining eleven disciples think it vital to appoint a replacement twelfth (Matthias, in Acts 1.21-26). The number remains significant to them. How would they be able to rule the twelve tribes of Israel if there were only eleven of them? There had to be twelve for this very purpose. Even after Jesus’ death and supposed resurrection, the disciples are still preparing for the end of the age he prophesied and for their positions of power in God’s Kingdom.

  4. By the time the synoptic gospels were written, Jesus secret teaching that the Twelve would rule alongside him in the new kingdom had become common knowledge (hence its inclusion in the gospels). Given that he told them in private they’d be judges and rulers, it can only have been the disciples who later broadcast this information. And why would they do this? Because it was an integral part of their good news. Furthermore, all three synoptic gospels include a range of episodes in which the twelve are castigated for their presumption (eg: Mark 10.37-41; Matthew 20.22-24; Luke 22.24-30). These have all the hallmarks of stories created later, when a different ‘good news’ was emerging, specifically to mock the disciples’ belief.

  5. In much the same way, the disciples are consistently depicted as having no real understanding of Jesus’ mission (Mark 9.30-32; 10.35-45). And they don’t, in that they have no understanding of the later reinterpretation of Jesus’ significance. How could they? By the time the gospels came to be written, the mystical-Christ version of Christianity had started to take hold. Paul’s salvation plan and the supposed resurrection were beginning to assume greater importance than Jesus’ original message. How could the disciples, 40 years earlier, have known that this was going to happen? How could Jesus? They have to be portrayed as being largely ignorant of later developments – developments which, in any case, they opposed when they did encounter them (Acts 9.26; Galatians 1.6; 2.11-14; 3.1-3).

  6. In fact, Jesus teaching – all of it – was predicated on his belief that the Kingdom of God was ‘at hand’, imminent, about to happen real soon (Mark 1.15; 9.1; 13.30; Matthew 10.23; 16.28; 24.34), and that when it did, he and his chums would be there ruling it. It is unthinkable his inner circle would abandon this teaching, even after he died, in favour of something else. Any visions they had of him returned from the dead would only have reinforced their commitment to his ‘good news’; resurrection, after all, was a sure sign of the Kingdom’s arrival (Daniel 12.2-3).

To be continued…

1 Ehrman, Bart D., The Lost Gospel of Judas, p146

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.

The disciples would not have died for a lie (part two)

Rule

As we have seen, the available evidence does not support the idea that Jesus’ original followers subscribed to a miraculous physical resurrection. It suggests instead that their beliefs centred on the promises Jesus had made about returning from heaven as ‘the Son of Man’ to establish God’s Kingdom on Earth, which they would then rule with him.

Elements of this promise survive in the gospels as we have them, even if there are, in all four, obvious concessions to Paul’s Christ figure; the gospels were, after all, written after Paul’s version of Christianity had begun to take hold. Significantly, the promise of the triumphant appearance of the Son of Man ‘within this generation’ is present in Q, the source of many of the sayings common to both Matthew and Luke’s gospels that they didn’t get from Mark. It’s also there in the sources (L and M) peculiar to each of the gospels. Obviously L, M and Q pre-date the gospels that later made use of them. Scholars think Q could have been written as early as 40CE, a few years after Jesus’ death, with some sayings earlier than that. It pre-dates Paul too and reflects a tradition that has nothing to do with him or his convoluted theology.

Q, in fact, has no sayings attributed to the resurrected Jesus, nor anything from his trial, the crucifixion or resurrection.1 How can that be? Were they not important to the early believers who compiled it? The answer can only be, no, they weren’t. For the creators of Q what mattered was what Jesus said – his ethical teaching and his promise to return as the Son of Man, within his hearers’ lifetime, to inaugurate the Kingdom of God on Earth in which the disciples would reign alongside him (Matthew 19:28). To be part of this Kingdom, people had to become righteous, not have it gifted to them (Matthew 5.20 & 48). This was the ‘good news’ for Jesus’ earliest followers, the gospel as it is preserved in the Q source.2 The lie that the disciples were to rule the world with Jesus inspired them to spread the news of the coming Kingdom; they demonstrate little interest in a reanimated dead man or a magical salvation formula.

So, did the disciples die for their faith in the Risen Jesus? Highly unlikely. They don’t seem, despite the later stories in which they feature, to attach any importance, at least in Q, to visions of a resurrected god-man.

How did they die, then? The simple answer is that, for most of them, we don’t know. They could have met their end when the original church community in Jerusalem was annihilated by the Romans in 70CE. The Romans didn’t particularly care what a minority group of fanatics believed – they were rebellious Jews who needed to be taught a lesson.

If not slaughtered by Romans in their capture of Jerusalem, then perhaps the disciples died for their seditious belief in the imminent arrival of the Kingdom of God, just as Jesus had before them. The Bible records the deaths of only two of them: Judas, who appears to have committed suicide using two different methods depending on which account you believe (Matthew 27:5-8 or Acts 1:18-19), and James, brother of John, who, according to Acts 12.1-2 was executed by Herod Agrippa 1. By the time Acts was written, however, somewhere between 80-90CE, the beliefs of the original followers had been swallowed up by Paul’s alternate version of the faith; we have no way of knowing how accurate the report of James’ death is. It’s hard to believe it was merely because he thought an old pal had risen from the dead. It is hard to believe this of any of them. For the other disciples there are only traditional accounts of how they died ‘for their faith’ with nothing to corroborate these legends.

It is quite possible Jesus’ original followers died for reasons unconnected with their outlandish beliefs in an imminent supernatural kingdom. They could just as easily have died of natural causes. One thing seems probable – they did not die because they believed in a resurrected Messiah. It’s not that they didn’t believe in a physical resurrection – they did – but they were convinced it would only happen with the arrival of God’s Kingdom on Earth, as prophesied in Daniel 12.1-4.

That it had already happened to their former leader did not figure in their beliefs, their writing or even their thinking.

 

 

1 Bart D. Ehrman, Jesus Before the Gospels, p279-280

2 ‘But for Q, Jesus was indeed principally remembered as a teacher of great wisdom and high moral demands, as an apocalyptic prophet anticipating the imminent end of the age, and one whose miraculous activities showed that the day of judgement was soon to come. For the author of Q, Jesus’ teachings provided the goal of the Christian life. Followers of Jesus are those who adhere to his directives for how to live, in anticipation of the coming kingdom of God.’ Bart. D. Ehrman, Jesus Before the Gospels, p280

Updated to include link to Matthew Ferguson’s celsus blog.

 

 

 

Jesus or Paul?

Nicodemus

Jesus is asked a few times in the gospels about how a person can find eternal life – like that’s the most obvious things to ask a travelling snake-oil salesman. Maybe it is, I don’t know. It was in the first century anyway, if the gospels are to be believed.

Jesus gives a variety of answers in the three earliest gospels: in Matthew 19.17 it’s ‘keep the commandments’ – those terrible, brutal laws I talked about last time. In Mark 12.30-31 he says the way to eternal life is to love God with all your heart and soul, and your neighbour as yourself. In other places he tells his audience that if you want to be forgiven by God then first you must forgive others (Matthew 6.14); if you want God’s compassion then first you must be compassionate (Matthew 25:31-46); if you don’t want to be judged, then you shouldn’t judge others (Luke 6.37).

Jesus is particularly fond of this kind of measure-for-measure salvation; it’s the lynch-pin of his good news – do unto others as you would have God do unto you. And almost every time he mentions it, he connects it with the Law and commandments.

Never does he say, anywhere in the gospels, that if you want to gain eternal life, or find favour with God, or be saved, then what you have to do is believe in the redemptive power of his own imminent death. Even when he could have done so, when he could have worked a little bit of Christian dogma into his teaching, he doesn’t. And that’s strange really, when you consider that Paul’s brand of Christianity – the one that’s come down to us today – is built entirely on the idea that the death and resurrection of Christ is the only thing can save us from God’s wrath.

Paul’s alternative gospel, which is expounded in Romans and summarised in Galatians 3.10-13, goes something like this:

Paul looks at the old Jewish Law and says, ‘actually it’s impossible. None of us can keep it. We’re all under a death sentence for some tiny infringement of it, because any and all infringements lead to the death penalty. But,’ he goes on, ‘Christ has taken that penalty for us by dying in our place. So although the law demands we should die and then suffer for eternity, we won’t, because he died for us. Then he rose again, just as those who believe in him will.’ That last bit – about believers rising from the dead – really doesn’t follow from his premise that the Law is impossible, but this is Paul talking, a man with only a passing acquaintance with logic. He doesn’t, either, have any evidence that Jesus took the penalty for the rest of humankind – he made that bit up too.

And that, in a nutshell – I do mean nut shell – is Paul’s ‘good news’. It bears no relation to the good news that Jesus preaches in the synoptic gospels. Admittedly, the Jesus who wanders his way through the first three gospels is for the most part a pre-death Jesus. You could argue, as a result, that he wouldn’t talk about redemption through his death before it had happened… but then again, why not? He talks about all sorts of other things he thinks are going to happen after he dies and rises again; he’s going to return pretty damn soon in a blaze of glory, through the clouds with an army of angels; heaven and earth are going to pass away; God is going to unleash his kingdom on the new earth.

But in spite of these mad speculations, he doesn’t mention even once in the synoptic gospels that people can be saved merely by accepting that he has paid – or will pay – the penalty for their infringements of the law, their sins if you will. Never. All the more odd when you consider that Mark, Matthew and Luke were putting their gospels together long after Paul preached his particular brand of salvation. Yet they don’t put this message into Jesus’ mouth, nor do they add it to the narrative.

It’s just not there.

So… were the gospel writers not aware of it? If they did know of it, was it that they didn’t like it? Did they know, in fact, that Paul’s formula didn’t square with what Jesus himself had said, or what they at least believed he’d said?

Whatever it was, the result is there are two conflicting versions of the ‘good news’ in the New Testament: Paul’s and Jesus’. One is easier than the other; in Paul’s plan all you have to do is believe. The other is difficult (and if we’re honest, really only designed for Jesus’ fellow Jews); it entails things like forgiving repeatedly, showing compassion, putting others first, turning the other cheek and, especially, following the six hundred and odd commandments that make up the Law.

So guess which one Christians today prefer.

Here’s a clue: it’s not Jesus’ gospel – the one without the magical incantation but with the barbaric Jewish law. But if, as Christians believe, Jesus was the Son of God – maybe even God himself – then why do they always accept Paul’s reinterpretation over and above everything their Lord said? Why do they disregard all that Jesus demands of those who would follow him, and take instead Paul’s easy path?

In the end, though, what Jesus and Paul (as well as the gospel writers and different factions of the early church) are in dispute about is the highly improbable and the absolutely impossible. It doesn’t matter whether they thought you could gain ‘eternal life’ by obeying the commandments or by letting someone else take your punishment for them; humans do not live forever. Just because a zealous first-century preacher thought they could does not make it so. Just because a different fanatic from roughly the same time believed it doesn’t make it happen either. There’s no evidence any human has ever, after this brief earthly existence, gone on to live forever. Equally, there’s no evidence that a deity exists, so those rules that are so important, in different ways, to Jesus and Paul can’t have originated with him. They’re man-made too.

So, with no God and no eternal life, Jesus and Paul might as well have been discussing whether the tooth fairy wears a pink dress or a green dress. What does it matter when she doesn’t exist?

How much more were they wrong about?

How long you got?