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-witness 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?