God’s Design for Sexual Relationships: the Gospel According to Don

A digression:

A little while back, a Christian commenter (we’ll call him ‘Don’) made the point that homosexuality and other non-conformist sexualities are ‘not the order of creation God intended‘. Yes, Don knows the intentions of a God whose purposes are unknowable (Romans 11:33-34)! 

And what are those intentions?’ I hear you ask. It is that everyone be, or pretends to be, heterosexual and involves the marriage of one man to one woman for life, for the procreation of children. I know this because it says so in the Book of Common Prayer, originally composed in 1622:

The union of husband and wife in heart, body, and mind is intended by God for their mutual joy; for the help and comfort given one another in prosperity and adversity; and, when it is God’s will, for the procreation of children and their nurture in the knowledge and love of the Lord. Therefore marriage is not to be entered into unadvisedly or lightly, but reverently, deliberately, and in accordance with the purposes for which it was instituted by God.

But how did the writers of this book know this was God’s plan? How do evangelicals today, who subscribe to the same ideas, know that this is what God intended? How does Don?

The Bible. Surely the writers of the prayer book consulted the Bible and created their summary of God’s plan from that. Surely the evangelicals who promote one-man one-woman marriage draw their inspiration from God’s Word. Surely this is how Don knows too.

Let’s see. Here’s what Paul has to say about marriage 1 Corinthians 7:28-29:

…if you marry, you do not sin, and if a virgin marries, she does not sin. Yet those who marry will experience distress in this life, and I would spare you that. I mean, brothers and sisters, the appointed time has grown short; from now on, let even those who have wives be as though they had none.

Hardly a ringing endorsement of marriage!

Paul goes on to say,

I would like you to be free from concern. An unmarried man is concerned about the Lord’s affairs—how he can please the Lord. But a married man is concerned about the affairs of this world—how he can please his wife— and his interests are divided. An unmarried woman or virgin is concerned about the Lord’s affairs: Her aim is to be devoted to the Lord in both body and spirit. But a married woman is concerned about the affairs of this world—how she can please her husband.I am saying this for your own good, not to restrict you, but that you may live in a right way in undivided devotion to the Lord…So then, he who marries the virgin does right, but he who does not marry her does better. A woman is bound to her husband as long as he lives. But if her husband dies, she is free to marry anyone she wishes, but he must belong to the Lord. In my judgment, she is happier if she stays as she is—and I think that I too have the Spirit of God (1 Corinthians 7:32-40).

In other words, avoid marriage if you can, the better to devote yourself entirely to the Lord. How many Christians actually do this? How many preachers and evangelists promote it? None that I know of.

I can already hear Don arguing that Paul’s views are his own and were not handed down from on high. Let’s then turn to what Jesus says about marriage. If anyone knows God’s views on the matter, it must surely be his very own Son. I don’t for a second, believe he was of course, especially as Jesus’ script was written years after Paul and owes a great deal to him. Nonetheless, here’s what Jesus is made to say about God’s plan for marriage:

Jesus said to them, ‘Those who belong to this age marry and are given in marriage; but those who are considered worthy of a place in that age [i.e. that of the Kingdom] and in the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage (Luke 20:34-36).

Surely he can’t be saying that those who want to rise from the dead and make it into the Kingdom of God shouldn’t marry? That they’re not worthy of that Kingdom if they do? Yup, that’s exactly what he’s saying.

Similarly, in Matthew 19:10-12, after discussing divorce with the Pharisees, Jesus responds to the disciples’ remark that ‘it is better not to marry’, with –

…not everyone can accept this teaching, but only those to whom it is given. For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by others, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the Kingdom of heaven. Let anyone accept this who can.

Even interpreted figuratively – though it’s not evident from the text that Jesus is speaking figuratively – this means Jesus thinks it’s preferable to be sexless: chaste, celibate, single. How well that’s worked out for the Catholic church!

Finally, there’s Luke 14:26 where Jesus makes it clear what following him entails:

If anyone comes to me and does not hatewife and children, brothers and sisters—yes, even their own life—such a person cannot be my disciple.

Not much ‘mutual joy’ there.

Unlike Jesus and Paul, I’m not knocking hetero-marriage or the procreation of children. I’ve been involved with both. If these are what floats your boat, that’s great. But they’re not what the Bible promotes. Just the opposite. After the tales of incest, polygamy and adultery in the Old Testament, the New teaches that marriage has had its day. It is to be avoided, the better to follow Jesus, prepare for the coming kingdom and be worthy of eternal life. Only marry, Paul advises, if you can’t control your sexual urges. But, according to Jesus, you are risking your place in the coming kingdom if you do. You can improve your chances by shunning sex altogether.

This is the Bible’s teaching about marriage and God’s intentions for the sexual beings he created. Strictly speaking, it’s the New Testament’s teaching; that of the Old is even more bizarre.

Aah but,’ I hear someone say, ‘it’s all about context.’ Certainly it is; and the context is that Paul and those who created Jesus’ script believed the current age was about to end. Marriage, such as it was (very different from the modern concept, particularly for women who could be bought and sold aged only 12 or 13), would also then be coming to an end. With the arrival of the Kingdom of God on Earth, marriage would be redundant. Better, Paul and the gospel writers argue, to have done with it now to conform ahead of time with the new system, with God’s plan: ‘those who are considered worthy of a place in that age and in the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage.’

But God’s plan – the arrival of his kingdom on Earth in the first century didn’t come to fruition. His plan for marriage to end likewise fell by the wayside. Instead, and without the assistance of any deity, the very human institution of marriage persisted and evolved, eventually being hijacked by the Catholic church in the ninth century. It emerged more or less in its current form – though not for everyone – in the 17th century. Whatever this signifies, it was not what ‘God intended for his creation’ nor his ‘design for sexual relationships’ (Don again, doubling down on his position.)

If the Bible is anything to go by, God has never been very impressed by marriage. His long-term plan for it, if that disreputable book is to be believed, was to scrap it altogether. Yet we still have Christians who use its continued existence to disparage and denigrate those of us who express our sexuality with other adults of the same sex, with whom we share a mutual attraction.

Shame on them.

The Return of the Annual Christmas Quiz!

Back, due to popular demand! The annual Christmas quiz, last seen in 2014. Ten questions on Biblical trivia. Answers at the bottom of the page.

Good luck. You’ll need it.

1. Where did Mary and Joseph live prior to Jesus’ birth?

a) Bethlehem

b) Nazareth

c) Galilee

2. How did Mary conceive?

a) By the power of the Holy Spirit

b) She didn’t. It’s a story.

c) How’d you think?

3. What was the relationship between John the Baptist and Jesus?

a) They were second cousins

b) They didn’t know each other and didn’t meet until they were adults

c) Jesus originally belonged to John’s baptism cult

4, When was Jesus born?

a) When Herod I was alive

b) After Herod had died and Quirinius was governor of Syria

c) Perhaps he wasn’t

5. How did Mary end up giving birth in Bethlehem?

a) There’s no evidence she gave birth in Bethlehem

b) She and Joseph had to go there because of the Roman census

c) She lived there anyway

6. The Lord tells Mary to call her child

a) Jesus

b) Immanuel

c) Yeshua

7. Where did the family go following the birth?

a) They went home to their house in Bethlehem

b) Egypt

c) Nazareth

8. Who preserved the songs of Zechariah, Mary and Simeon (Luke 1 & 2)?

a) They were preserved orally word-for-word for 50 years

b) They were recorded in Q

c) They were created in their entirety by Luke, based loosely on Jewish scriptures

9. Where is the prophecy, quoted by Matthew (2:23), that Jesus would be called a Nazarene?

a) Micah

b) Isaiah

c) Nowhere: there is no such prophecy in Jewish scriptures or anywhere else

10. Which is the most unbelievable part of the nativity stories of Matthew and Luke?

a) a host of singing angels hovering in the sky

b) the wand’rin’ star

c) a virgin giving birth

d) Herod’s re-enactment of a story from Exodus

e) All the angelic visitations, dreams and visions that are needed to make the stories function

Answers:

1. Where did Mary and Joseph live prior to Jesus’ birth? All of the answers here are correct, so the Holy Bible say. According to Matthew, Mary & Joseph lived in Bethlehem. According to Luke they lived in Nazareth. According to Mark, it was known that Jesus hailed from Nazareth though he doesn’t say Jesus was born there. John refers to Jesus being from Galilee and acknowledges he comes from Nazareth (1:46).

Matthew and Luke insist Jesus was from Bethlehem to make him ‘fulfil’ the prophecy that the Messiah would come from there. Mark and John apparently don’t care.

2. How did Mary conceive? Matthew and Luke have the Holy Spirit do the deed. Matthew says merely that Mary ‘conceived by the Holy Spirit’, while Luke really goes to town with a ridiculous story involving an angel and Mary being orgasmic about the coming of the Lord. Mark hasn’t heard of either account, because neither had been invented, and fails to invent his own. John is only interested in Jesus as The Logos prior to his time on Earth. Actually, Jesus could only have been conceived by the only method we know that works: boy and girl hoochie-coochie.

3. What was the relationship between John the Baptist and Jesus? All are correct. Luke says Jesus and John were second cousins (1:36) and their mothers were close (1:56). The Gospel of John (1:31) says that John the Baptist didn’t know Jesus personally. Some scholars think Jesus was originally a member of John’s baptism cult.

4, When was Jesus born? a) and b) are both correct according to the gospels. Matthew places Jesus’ birth in Herod I’s reign, which ended when he died in 4BCE. Luke meanwhile dates it to Quirinius’ governorship of Syria, which was in 6 and 7CE. No wonder there are those who think Jesus may never have existed, so encrusted with myth and make-believe is he.

5. How did Mary end up giving birth in Bethlehem? The census is a contrivance to shift the birth to Bethlehem. There wasn’t a census of the kind described when Quirinius was governor of Syria, nor in 4BCE. Quirinius’ census was of property and would not have entailed the (mass) movement of people. Matthew seems to think M&J lived in Bethlehem all along. No-one else thinks so.

As the Bethlehem connection derives only from prophecy (Micah 5:2), it is likely Matthew and Luke located the birth there to show the ‘fulfilment’ of that prophecy. In other words, they invented it, as they do other ‘fulfilments’. It looks like a) is the only viable answer.

6. The Lord tells Mary to call her child… According to Matthew. Mary is meant to call the baby Immanuel, which, as the text helpfully informs us, means ‘God with us’. This is to make the story comply with Isaiah 7:14 which claims the Messiah will be called Immanuel. But Mary doesn’t call her baby Immanuel. She calls him Yeshua, meaning ‘God Saves’, which is not the same thing. How Matthew thinks this is a fulfilment of the Immanuel prophecy is anyone’s guess. When the gospels came to be written, Yeshua was rendered in Greek as Iesus and eventually in English as Jesus. Neither he nor his mother would have recognised this rendering.

7. Where did the family go following the birth? Again, all are correct according to the gospels. The family went on living in Bethlehem according to Matthew (2:7-11) but fled to Egypt according to Luke. Mark doesn’t appear to know either the Bethlehem or Egypt stories and refers only to Jesus coming from Nazareth.

8. Who preserved the songs of Zechariah, Mary and Simeon (Luke 1 & 2)? c) is correct. No oral tradition could possibly preserve the three carefully structured poems verbatim for 50 years. The hypothetical Q is conjectured to be a collection of Jesus’ sayings so the songs don’t come from there either. Luke or his community made them up.

9. Where is the prophecy, quoted by Matthew (2:23) that Jesus would be called a Nazarene? There is no such ‘prophecy’ anywhere in Jewish scripture nor in any extant writing: c) is correct once again.

10. Which is the most unbelievable part of the nativity stories of Matthew and Luke? That’s right. All of them are completely unbelievable.

How did you do? If you’re confused, don’t be. It’s the gospel writers who were. They made up stories about Jesus so that he complied with parts of Jewish scripture that seemed to them to be speaking of the Messiah. (John’s stories are a little different; they and Jesus’ tedious monologues were created to make him seem more like a Greek demi-god.)

Perhaps though I’m taking it all too literally, ‘like a fundamentalist’ as my self-appointed chief critic likes to say. I should perhaps accept it’s all just a metaphor, as he advises. Of course, when I do, he objects to that too; ‘A metaphor for what?’ he asks, forgetting he’s the one who believes the stories are ‘intended’ to be deeply meaningfully symbolic.

The muddled accounts arose as each gospel writers attempted to make an origin story for their hero based on scraps from Jewish scripture, Paul’s teaching and the emerging beliefs of their particular brand of the cult. They’d have got away with it too if some clever-dicks hadn’t decided, many decades later, to put their efforts side by side so their differences were laid bare for all to see: all the contradictions, inconsistencies, fallacies, anomalies and incompatible flights of fancy. Thank god the church kept their writings hidden away from most folks by preserving them in a language they couldn’t read.

That same critic will no doubt tell me I’m wrong again. ‘Everything happened as Matthew and Luke relate. There are no contradictions between them and the other two, Mark and John, had different priorities anyway.’ (See comments to this post here). He’ll tie himself in knots rather than admit the nativity stories are myth, as is everything that follows.

Have a happy Christmas, ya’ll. See you on the other side.

 

Jesus the No-Hoper

Jesus – Hope for the World declares the banner outside the church near where I live. I can’t help but wonder about the naivety of the people who came up with the slogan and what it means. What are the possibilities?

‘Peace on Earth, goodwill to all men’ (and maybe women)? If so, the world isn’t showing much of either, certainly none that can be attributed to Jesus and his fractured, fractious and frequently intolerant church.

How about inner peace then, even though that’s a long way from ‘hope for the world.‘ How many Christians exemplify this particular fruit of Spirit? Is this, in the end, all that Jesus offers: the hope of a nice fuzzy feeling inside? Of course, peace of mind can be spirit-generate, though personally I prefer wine. 

Hope of reconciliation with God then. Only if you believe in God in the first place, not to mention ‘sin‘, human sacrifice and magic. If this is the kind of hope Jesus represents, then really, what good is it? 

Possibly the hope of which the banner speaks is the hope the earliest Christians had, of Jesus coming back real soon to slaughter his enemies and set up the Kingdom with, naturally, themselves at the top of the pile? Hasn’t Jesus had two thousand years to deliver this hoped for outcome?  An idea well past its sell-by date, the Kingdom of God on Earth isn’t ever going to materialise, however much ‘hope’ people have.

Maybe, then, it’s a hope of eternal life. The gospel writers have Jesus make such a preposterous offer (e.g. John 10:27-28). If this is what Christians are hoping for they are sadly deluded, and, as Paul puts it, the most pitiable of all people (1 Cor 15:19). No human being outside of myth and comic books has ever lived forever. None ever will.

Hope of heaven? See above. Besides, the Bible really doesn’t offer a place in heaven to anyone. That’s a much later development. It’s a waste of this one and only life to live in the vain hope of something better after death. 

Maybe the hope referred to is hope in hope itself. How futile would that be? Hope is no substitute for food for the hungry, shelter for the destitute, treatment for the sick. 

When I go to the carol service at the church next weekend, I’m confident it will be made clear just what sort of hope Jesus offers the world. If not, I’ll be sure to ask. I’ll let you know.

Miracles made to order

Mark makes his Jesus perform all the deeds the scriptures say will be performed by the Messiah. He doesn’t spell out that this is what he’s doing. He wants those who hear his gospel being read aloud (as it would have been to the cult’s members) to work it out for themselves: ‘he who has ears let him hear’ and all that.

This isn’t good enough for Matthew, however. He wants to make it obvious what’s going on, so he invents a story to draw attention to it. To do so, he has to have John the Baptist, who has previously acknowledged Jesus as the Messiah and heard God say as much from Heaven, doubt all of it. Matthew considers it worth it to make the more important point that Jesus is truly God’s Chosen One:

John (the Baptist) heard in prison about the works of Christ, and he sent his disciples to ask Him, “Are You the One who was to come, or should we look for someone else?”

Jesus replied, “Go back and report to John what you hear and see: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor. Blessed is the one who does not fall away on account of Me.” (Matthew 11:2-6)

Matthew makes Jesus refer to several scattered verses from the scriptures that appear to say that once God’s Kingdom arrives on Earth the deaf shall hear, the blind see and the lame walk. Now you can believe, if you like, that Jesus really did make the blind see and the lame walk because the Kingdom had arrived (though -oops – it hadn’t!) or you can recognise that Matthew (and Mark before him) was aware of these references and made up a hero to embody them. Which is more likely, when every one of the miracles Jesus alludes to in Matthew 11 illustrates specific verses from scripture?

The blind see, the deaf hear, the lame walk (Isaiah 35:4-6) is brought to life in Matthew 9:27-31; 15:31-37 and 9.1-8.

Lepers cleansed: Leviticus 14 materialises as Matthew 8:1-4. The ability to heal a ‘defiling skin disease’ had long been thought to be a sign of the Messiah, so naturally Jesus has to be able to do it.

The dead rise: Daniel 12:2 is resurrected as Matthew 9.18-26.

The good news preached: Isaiah 52:7 becomes Jesus’ message.

A man called Jesus didn’t do these looked-for amazing things. These looked-for amazing things gave rise to a character constructed by myth makers: gospel Jesus. 

 

According to Scripture

A simple comparison of Mark’s and Matthew’s gospels is enough to demonstrate that the gospel writers invented their stories of Jesus. I’m going to take only a few examples over the next few posts, but the same analysis could be made of any of the episodes in the two gospels and yield the same results.

Mark starts his story with Jesus’ baptism and subsequent 40 days in the wilderness. The dominant motifs of both episodes are intended to alert the reader to the fact that Mark sees Jesus as the new Moses, preparing to lead his people out of bondage and into the Kingdom that God is preparing for them. The parting seas of Exodus 14 become the parting clouds through which God proclaims Jesus his Son, the 40 year trek through the wilderness (Exodus 16 etc) is replaced with Jesus’ 40 days in the wilderness. 

Mark gives the wilderness episode a mere two sentences (Mark 1.12-13) which isn’t enough for Matthew. He embellishes it in his gospel, making it a full-blown fantasy, complete with a lengthy conversation between Jesus and Satan. Matthew invented this story. We know he did because:

it cannot possibly have come from an eye-witness (because there wasn’t one);

It is patently fantasy material, with Satan, ministering angels and teleportation;

it cannot have derived from any oral tradition (as it is an embellishment of Mark’s tale, invented only a decade earlier, designed to echo the Moses story);

It is designed specifically to extend the analogy with the Moses. In Matthew, Jesus encounters the same temptations as the ancient Israelites in their wilderness trip, but, unlike his forebears, Jesus triumphantly resists them. He then recruits 12 disciples to go on ahead of him (Mark 3:13-15) just as Moses’ appointed 12 spies for the same purpose (Numbers 13). 

Matthew has even more up his sleeve. He is fully aware of the parallels Mark has made between Jesus and Moses and adds a third to the beginning of his Jesus narrative. In his contrived nativity story, he rewrites the story from Exodus 1 and 2, itself a complete fabrication, in which Pharaoh orders the elimination of all Israelite baby boys. He lifts it directly into the so-called Massacre of the Innocents episode in his gospel.

Again, we know Matthew made this up:

Herod did not order any such massacre. It is not an historical event.

Matthew was determined to find incidents in Jewish scripture he could claim were really about Jesus. Here he is at it.

He is determinedly extending Mark’s metaphor; this is not material from any other source or tradition.

He constructs the narrative using additional ‘prophecies’ he finds in the scriptures. For example, the trip to Bethlehem and the flight to Egypt, neither of which happened (no other gospel writers knows of them.) The Egypt episode is an imaginative (and dishonest) expansion of Hosea 11:1: ‘Out of Egypt I called my son’. In context, the verse refers to the Jewish nation not a future Messiah. And who led the Israelites out of Egypt? Moses.

The nativity story and the Moses/Israelite parallels in the Egypt/baptism/wilderness episodes in Matthew are not drawn from tales of Jesus that were doing the rounds. They are clever, contrived literary creations. They tell us too that Matthew did not regard Mark’s more basic stories as history or biography. He evidently did not view them as immutable. He changes and adds to them to make his own points, ‘correct’ Mark, extend his analogies and emphasise that which he thinks Mark hasn’t emphasised enough. Throughout his gospel he’s prepared to create new incidents, even when they conflict with points Mark makes. He knows that Mark’s work, like his own, constitutes carefully devised stories and he feels free – compelled – to improve them. You can’t treat history this way but you can rewrite fiction.

Stories about Jesus

Our resident Christian implied recently that I disputed that stories about Jesus existed prior to the gospels being written. I don’t – this was another of Don’s straw man arguments – and told him that of course there were earlier stories about Jesus. But then I got to thinking: where exactly are those stories? How do we know they existed? How can we distinguish them from later embellishments?

Let’s take a look at the evidence*, starting with the earliest Christian writing that we have:

Paul

Paul doesn’t refer to a single event from Jesus’ life outside a barebone account of the crucifixion and resurrection. He doesn’t mention, for example, the nativity, the virgin birth, Jesus’ time in the wilderness, his chat with the devil, his baptism, John the Baptist, the miracles, the amazing things Jesus is reputed to have said, the parables, the Sermon on the Mount and Beatitudes, the I Am sayings, the healings, Lazarus, the arrival in Jerusalem, the cleansing of the Temple, the agony in the Garden of Gethsemane, the arrest, Judas, Pontius Pilate, Jesus’ trial, the mockery of the soldiers, Peter’s denial, the words Jesus spoke on the cross, Joseph of Arimathea, the rolled away stone, the empty tomb, Mary Magdalene, Doubting Thomas or the physical Ascension. Neither does he refer to any incidents or episodes from stories that didn’t eventually make it into the gospels. Not one of them. (He does create a narrative of his own that later finds its way there: the ritual of sharing bread and wine which Paul lifts from Pagan ceremonies. We’ll return to it in a later post.)

Apologists like to say that these serious omissions are no more than Paul’s assumption that his readers would already know the stories about Jesus.  He does not need to reiterate them. But no-one is suggesting he should or would have recounted them in full. What is odd and awkward is that Paul doesn’t even allude to them in his teaching. He could clinch many an argument by referring to a particular saying or miracle of Jesus’, but he never does.

When talking about obeying the (Roman) authorities, for example, in 1 Corinthians 15:12 &13, he could have said, ‘Recall that the Lord told us we should render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s,’ but he doesn’t. He could have alluded to Thomas when explaining the importance of having faith without evidence; talked about the empty tomb when discussing Jesus’ resurrection; mentioned the raising of Lazarus as an example of the dead being resurrected; commented on Jesus turning water into wine when arguing that the Law had been superseded by a new covenant. He might even have quoted something Jesus said from a story in circulation that didn’t later end up in one of the gospels.

He doesn’t. Ever.

Paul claims he received none of his information about Jesus from any human being. He insists he received all he knew through revelation – the Lord speaking to him from heaven. Apparently, the Lord neglected to convey any of the details of his life on Earth. The apostles kept equally schtum. Paul was no more knowledgeable about the life of Jesus once he’d he met them than he had been before. Was he not inquisitive? Did he not ask the right questions? Did they dislike him so much they withheld every detail of Jesus’ activities on Earth? Did they not in fact have that kind of information? Whichever it was, Paul seems not have known any of the stories about Jesus that predated the gospels or even that later appeared in them. It’s possible, I would say likely, he did not know of them because they had yet to be created. Many of the stories about Jesus were ten or more years away.

But we mustn’t jump to conclusions. Next time we’ll take a look at other possible sources of these elusive stories.

 

*I read Bart Ehrman’s Jesus Before The Gospels a few years back. I hope I’m not merely reiterating what he says there. While there were some points I found less persuasive than others, Ehrman nevertheless does a good job of showing how stories about Jesus changed and evolved over the years.

The Evolution of Jesus II: from Life Giving Spirit to God the Son and beyond.

A couple of decades after the first visions of a risen Jesus, a Jewish zealot called Saul decided he’d seen him too. He came to imagine a vision he’d had in his head was this same Jesus, who then revealed to Saul – all entirely within his head as he admits – what his death and return from the dead really meant. Paul, as he renamed himself, announced that God had decided Jesus was a good man and returned him to life after his execution. In doing so, God made Jesus his Son (you can read all this poppycock in Romans 1:3-4). Jesus was now a life-giving spirit, the Saviour Christ: 1 Corinthians 15:45. (Maybe though Jesus always had been this; it’s kind of confusing, but in Philippians 2:6-8 Paul seems to think Jesus was some sort of quasi-divine being from the get-go. Take your pick. Whatever.)

Memetic selection ensured the survival and perpetuation of Paul’s bizarre idea, one that was, after all, not unfamiliar to the Hellenised people of the first century. The superstitious embraced and transmitted it without knowing a thing about any itinerant Jewish preacher. 

The next stage of Jesus’ evolution came twenty or so years later, when a believer we now know as Mark decided to write a back story for this Christ. He created his story using Jewish scripture, Paul’s ideas and the rules of the sect to which he belonged. Who knows if Mark believed Jesus had ever been a real person who trudged around Palestine preaching the good news about the end of everything, but in Mark’s story he had him do just that. He decided, crucially, that he wouldn’t have Jesus become God’s adopted son at the time of his spiritual resurrection. Instead, Mark had him become God’s son at his baptism (Mark 1.10-11).

This wasn’t quite good enough for the next two cultists who attempted a Jesus narrative. While they plagiarised much of Mark’s story, they changed details and made up more for Jesus to say and do. Importantly, where Mark had avoided suggesting Jesus’ resurrection appearances had occurred in the real world, Matthew and Luke showed no such reticence. Their Jesus(es) showed himself not in visions but in the flesh. It’s likely Matthew at least knew he was creating a symbolic, literary representation of others’ visions.

At the other end of the story, Matthew and Luke invented largely incompatible birth stories for their hero. For Matthew, Jesus was the Messiah from the time he was born, fulfilling all the prophecies Matthew borrowed to create his nativity story (he doesn’t: the Messiah, according to the very ‘prophecies’ Matthew manipulates is not divine but a human warrior).

Luke, on the other hand, is determined to push Jesus’ divinity even back further. For Luke, Jesus became divine when God magically made Mary pregnant; Luke’s Jesus is quite literally God’s son (Luke 1.35). Unfortunately, Mary forgot all about being impregnated by the Holy Semen Spirit later on in Luke’s ridiculous story. Nevertheless, Jesus’ status had evolved again; he’d become God’s son from the very moment of conception.

Even this was not good enough for the next version of the Jesus’ story. The writers of the fourth gospel decide to make him eternal and part of God himself. Plundering Greek philosophy and Paul’s ruminations from Philippians, they declare Jesus the ‘Logos’; the Word or aspect of God responsible for the creation of everything (John 1:1-5). And despite this being as far from an itinerant peasant preacher as it’s possible to be, even more gullible folk came to believe it.

Jesus’ evolution was still not complete, however. The council of Nicaea in 325 decided that Jesus was ‘begotten not made’ (whatever that means) – but couldn’t quite decide whether being the Logos and the Son of God actually made Jesus God Incarnate. It wasn’t until the Council of Constantinople in 381 that a collection of bishops decided Jesus was, after all, officially part of the Godhead. The apocalyptic preacher from the backwoods finally became God the Son, a mere 350 years after he lived (if indeed he did).

Jesus has continued to evolve ever since, becoming all things to all people; a God pliable enough to be whatever his followers want him to be: Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox, Russian Orthodox, Evangelical, Mormon, fringe cult. He’s evolved into a schizophrenic deity capable of being both meek and mild and bellicose; best buddy and chief executioner; Christian Nationalist, socialist and capitalist, gay and anti-gay, pro-family and anti-family; anti-abortion and pro-gun; environmentalist and iconoclast; the one who promotes a prosperity gospel and the ‘One True God’ known (only) to a select few. Every contradictory manifestation is supported by the Bible, the Church or tradition. Every one is non-existent and ultimately pointless.

That’s some evolution.

The Evolution of Jesus I: from Itinerant Preacher to Death-Defying Vision

Image by Doppler, from YouTube video The Evolution of Jesus Christ.


Everything evolves. Not just Life, but the Mind, Personality, Morality and Culture. This is the thesis of Matt Ridley’s book, The Evolution of Everything: How Small Changes Transform Our World, in which he demonstrates that everything, from the Economy and Technology to Government and Education, were originally, and to some extent remain, bottom up phenomenon. Each emerged because of the developments that had preceded them; for this reason, they couldn’t arrive before they did, but their arrival, when it came, was inevitable. The time was right. Once each did arrive, it embarked on an inexorable process of change. It evolved.

‘Everything’, of course, includes Religion. As Ridley says (p259):

Further evidence for the man-made nature of gods comes from their evolutionary history. It is a little-known fact, but gods evolve. There is a steady and gradual transformation through human history not only from polytheism to monotheism, but from gods who are touchy, foolish, randy and greedy people, who just happen to be immortal, to disembodied and virtuous spirits living in an entirely different realm and concerned mainly with virtue. Contrast the vengeful and irritable Jehovah of the Old Testament with the loving Christian God of today.’

This is undoubtedly the case (Ridley presents his evidence); religion is an entirely human enterprise that developed from the bottom up. It too evolved. As Ridley shows, there is no other way.

While Ridley doesn’t discuss it, this evolutionary process applies to Jesus too. This seems to me apparent, rather than a little-known fact. He didn’t spring from nowhere; the time was right for him. By the start of what is now the first century, an apocalyptic brand of Judaism had emerged, inspired in part by the book of Daniel and other late Old Testament prophecy. It was whipped to fever pitch during the Roman occupation. People were anticipating that the Messiah would soon rescue them by force; the time was right for him to appear. And appear he did, in multiple forms, all of them eliminated by the Romans. Jesus was one of these.

He began either as an itinerant preacher with delusions of grandeur or he was an imaginary being whom a few people thought miraculously appeared to them. It doesn’t matter which; even if he existed, he very quickly evolved into a supernatural being. As an itinerant preacher he would have wandered around a small part of Palestine with a handful of followers, mouthing platitudes and predicting that God’s Kingdom would soon be arriving, and that he would be its king. Instead, he was executed for insurgency. Shortly afterwards, a couple of his followers swore they’d seen him alive again. With this claim Jesus made an evolutionary leap, from troublesome Jewish preacher to death-defying vision.

His evolution was underway.

To be continued…

If It Walks Like A Duck…

Psychology Today has this to say about cults:

Destructive individuals and cults use deception and undue influence to make people dependent and obedient. A group should not be considered a cult merely because of its unorthodox beliefs. It is typically authoritarian, headed by a person or group of people with near complete control of followers. Cult influence is designed to disrupt a person’s authentic identity and replace it with a new identity.

Let’s break this down a little:

Destructive individuals: But those enemies of mine who did not want me to be king over them – bring them here and kill them in front of me (Luke 19.27).

Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword (Matthew 10:34).

He said to them, ‘But now, the one who has a purse must take it, and likewise a bag. And the one who has no sword must sell his cloak and buy one. For I tell you, this scripture must be fulfilled in me, “And he was counted among the lawless”; and indeed what is written about me is being fulfilled.’ They said, ‘Lord, look, here are two swords.’ He replied, ‘It is enough’ (Luke 22: 36-38). [This is evidently a fictitious episode created around a supposed prophecy (Isaiah 53:12).]

Use deception: The time has come. The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news! (Mark 1:14-15). Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours (Mark 11.24).

Undue influence: Any one of you who does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple (Luke 14.33). No one who puts his hand to the plough and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God. (Luke 9.62).

To make people dependent: If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple (Luke 14.26).

…and obedient: If you love me, keep my commands (John 14:15). Whoever serves me must follow me; and where I am, my servant also will be. My Father will honour the one who serves me (John 12.26).

Typically authoritarian… with near complete control: You are my friends if you do what I command you (John 15.14).

Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness’ (Matthew 7.21)

Disrupts a person’s true identity: If anyone wants to come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it. But whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. (Luke 9.23). 

And replaces it with a new identity: Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 18.13).

(John said,)He must become greater; I must become less’ (John 3.30).

It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance (Luke 5: 31-32).

Whether Jesus said these things or they were put into his mouth by his early followers, it is still the case that if it looks like a cult, talks like a cult and behaves like a cult… it’s a cult.

As it was in the beginning, now and ever shall be.

Just Like Jesus

Some parts of this post have appeared before.

Early in the first letter of John, we read,

By this we know that we have come to know Him, if we keep His commandments. The one who says, “I have come to know Him,” and does not keep His commandments, is a liar, and the truth is not in him; but whoever keeps His word, in him the love of God has truly been perfected. By this we know that we are in Him: the one who says he abides in Him ought himself to walk in the same manner as He walked. (1 John 2: 3-6)

Isn’t that interesting? John, whoever he was, says that Christians can know they’re saved because they keep Jesus’ commands and ‘walk’ as he walked. Likewise, others should be able to see these traits too because, as Jesus is (later) made to say, cult members can be recognised by their ‘fruits’ (Matthew 7:16).

Just what are Jesus’ commands that converts can’t help but demonstrate? Here’s a few:

  • Cutting themselves off from family – hating their parents, in fact – just to follow him (Luke 14.26);
  • Deny everything about themselves (Matthew 16.24-27);
  • Forsaking home, job, wealth, status, credibility and comfort to help bring about God’s Kingdom on Earth (Mark 10.29-31 etc);
  • Slaving tirelessly in the service of others (Mark 10.43-44; Matthew 23.11 etc);
  • Selling their possessions so that they can give the proceeds to the poor (Matthew 19.21; Luke 14.33);
  • Turning the other cheek, repeatedly going the extra mile and giving away the shirt and coat from off their backs– if they’ve still got them after giving everything away – (Matthew 5.38-40);
  • Welcoming the stranger, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked and visiting those in prison (Matthew 25.35-40);
  • Forgiving again and again and again (Matthew 18.21-22);
  • Avoiding judging others so that they won’t  be judged in turn (Matthew 7.1-3);
  • Loving their enemies (Matthew 5.44);
  • Regarding persecution and injustices as blessings (Matthew 5.11);
  • Doing miracles even more impressive than Jesus’ own (Mark 16.17-18; John 14.12);
  • Healing the sick, raising the dead and casting out demons (Matthew 10.7-8);
  • Asking for anything in prayer, which will be given to them (Mark 11.24; Matthew 21.22);
  • Telling others that the world is about to end (in the first century) and that only Jesus can save them from God’s wrath (Matthew 28.29-34; Matthew 28.16-20).

How many of these things do we see Christians doing? How many of these commandments are Christians compelled to ‘keep’, as letter writer John puts it? Some, it’s true, make attempts with the last (if only they wouldn’t) and a very limited few have a go at a couple of the others. But as far as most Christians are concerned, these commandments may as well not exist. They don’t see Jesus’ instructions as applying to them. I know from experience that they have ready made excuses for not obeying them, let alone feeling an inner compulsion to realise them in their own lives.

Their excuses necessitate them reinterpreting Jesus’ words. They’re metaphorical, they say. ‘He didn’t really mean give everything away because where would that leave us?’ – or they insist his commands have been taken out of context, or have only a spiritual meaning

Which is to say, nothing Jesus said is to be taken literally, even though the most straight forward reading of his pronouncements is that this is how he meant them. It’s how his early followers, the people who preserved or created his words in the gospels, understood them. Why record them otherwise?

But Jesus’ moralising is inconvenient, impractical, exacting, extreme; ridiculous, in fact, and Christians know this. Still his commands must be dealt with somehow. So the Righteous™ work round them or ignore them completely, replacing his priorities with ones of their own: worshipping him; defending his reputation; striving for power; complaining about secular society; whining about the media;  promoting aggression; acquiring wealth (there should be no such thing as a millionaire Christian); claiming persecution; equating faith with guns; trying to control others’ behaviour; interfering in their sex lives; suppressing LGBT people; arguing that religious rights trump those of minorities; opposing abortion.

None of these figured in Jesus’ agenda. Some are even in direct opposition to what he’s made to say in the gospels.

When we see Christians doing the things Jesus tells them they should be doing – what God’s love perfected in them compels them to do – maybe then we’ll listen to what they have to say. When they demonstrate credibility rather than hypocrisy, maybe they’ll have earned the right to be heard. But as there’s not much chance of that happening any time soon, it’s way past time we ignored them, and their superstition, in much the same way they ignore their Lord and Savior™.