Jesus: Speak not clearly did he

Blog345JC

Why did Jesus not speak clearly? If he came from God, or was God in some way, why didn’t he express himself directly and with precision? Why did he obscure what he had to say with hyperbole, riddles and demands that even he couldn’t meet?

Don Camp, light-weight apologist and C. S. Lewis aficionado, has been giving me a little lecture over in the comments section of Debunking Christianity. He’s been providing the basics in how some of Jesus’ remarks in the gospels are hyperbolic and are therefore not to be taken literally. I am, of course, already aware of Jesus’ tendency to exaggerate (how far does this qualify as false witness, I wonder?) but Don and I were specifically discussing Matthew 5.29-30 where Jesus advises those who lust after a woman to pluck out their right eye and cut off their hand. Don asserted that obviously this is an exaggeration, to be understood figuratively, not literally. I asked him how one distinguishes between the two.

Don responded by saying one should look for clues in the scriptures (the bible as Murder, She Wrote); clues that might reveal how early Christians responded to Jesus’ assertions. If they ignored what Jesus said (while most did disregard his more extreme commands, such as the self-mutilation statements, there is evidence that some did indeed take him literally), then we can safely do the same. If, on the other hand (no pun intended) they acted on what he said, then it’s fair to assume it’s okay for today’s Christians to do the same. Sounds simple right? But it still doesn’t help anyone decide what is hyperbole and what is meant literally.

For example, Christians largely ignore Jesus’ commands to go the extra mile, give the shirts of their back to those who ask for them, turn the other cheek, love their enemies, disavow wealth, sell all they have, give no concern for the future and do all they can for the homeless, sick, naked and displaced. There isn’t a lot of evidence that even early followers did these things. Does their disregard for these commands mean that Jesus must have meant them figuratively? That there is spiritual truth to be discerned from them but that no practical action is expected or required?

Where do Jesus’ apparent assurances that his followers would heal the sick, raise the dead (Matthew 10.8) and do ‘works’ even greater than his (John 14.12) fit? Are these hyperbole or are they intended to be taken literally? Given early Christians serve as Don’s yard-stick for what is hyperbole and what is literal, what did they think? We don’t actually know, though evidently some considered the promises significant enough to include in the gospels. Among today’s believers, there are those – and not just on the fringe – who accept them as literal, while others scoff at the idea of taking them at face value.

What about Jesus’ promises that God’s Kingdom was imminent and that he would rise from the dead? Aren’t these just hyperbole too? Don says no, because people at the time didn’t ignore them (as they did his ‘obvious’ hyperbole) but believed they would happen. Therefore, they must have been meant literally. Unfortunately, Don fails to take into account that the promises of a resurrection were applied retrospectively; Jesus didn’t actually predict his own return from the dead (for reasons discussed here.) The Kingdom of God, meanwhile, failed to materialise when Jesus said it would. The extent to which early Christians believed these promises hardly demonstrates their literal truth. In any case, is ultimate truth to be determined by how ordinary, largely uneducated, superstitious back-water folks responded to what they heard or read? What a spurious and unreliable way to decide.

Which brings me back to my original question. Couldn’t Jesus have been lot clearer about what he meant? Instead, he dressed up a lot of what he said in what might, or might not be, hyperbole. He issued other ‘truths’ in parables that he didn’t intend the hoi-polloi to understand (Mark 4.12). He offered advice that is of no practical use, some of it positively detrimental. He was neither systematic nor consistent and contradicted himself. So much of what he said is open to interpretation, to the extent that there are now thousands of Christian churches, cults and sects, all at odds with one another because they disagree about what he meant.

The New Testament as a whole too is a muddle of conflicting ideas and advice… though that’s a discussion for another time.

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According to the Scriptures (not)

Blog344Jonah

Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures. He was buried (and) was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures…

This is Paul’s claim in 1 Corinthians 15.3-4, where he is probably quoting an early Christian creed. He uses the phrase ‘according to the scriptures’ twice, meaning that what he’s claiming fulfils prophecy from the Jewish scriptures. He is not referring to the gospel accounts of Jesus’ death and resurrection as these ‘scriptures’ had yet to be written at the time of 1 Corinthians (circa 54/55AD.) Mark’s gospel was still fifteen or so years away.

So where in the Jewish scriptures – the Christian Old Testament – is there any prophecy that the Messiah would die for the sins of the people? Where the prediction that he would rise from the dead on the third day?

As Michael J. Alter notes, there is no prophecy either that the Messiah would die for the sins of the people nor that he would then rise from the dead. Not one. Passages that are pressed into service by Christians ancient and modern to demonstrate that Jesus’ death and resurrection were presaged in the Old Testament are either not prophecy or they don’t have any bearing on either Jesus’ death or supposed resurrection.

Let’s look at a couple:

In Matthew 12.40, Jesus is made to equate his time in the grave – three days and three nights – with the time Jonah spent in the belly of a great fish. But the Jonah story has nothing to do with events hundreds of years later. It is an ancient fable, not a prophecy delivered by one of the Old Testament’s recognised prophets. In any case, in the story Jonah is being disobedient and is running away from his God-given mission. Jesus, according the gospels, doesn’t do either of these things. Moreover, Jonah does not have to die to spend three days in a fish. He does not resurrect when the fish spews him out. The only aspect the two stories have in common is the period of three days and nights, which as we have seen, bear little relation to how long Jesus was actually in the tomb. Matthew has press-ganged an irrelevant story into service, in an attempt to show that Jesus really was the Messiah. Why does he do this? Because he can’t find any ‘scripture’ that points incontrovertibly to the Messiah dying and resurrecting. Jonah is literally the best he can do.

Modern Christians like to tell us that Isaiah 53 is a prophecy that Jesus would die as a sacrifice for sin. Significantly, none of the New Testament writers attempt to make Isaiah’s ‘suffering servant’ narrative fit Jesus. This is because the suffering servant it describes is the beleaguered Jewish nation; earlier chapters say so several times. To insist that Isaiah 53 describes Jesus’ death and resurrection is to render it incompatible with all the Old Testament prophecies that are actually about the Messiah. For those who created these scriptures, this figure was a warrior, a human who would route the enemies of Israel and usher in the Messianic age. Isaiah 53 is about how the rulers of the kingdoms of this world will stand in awe of this feat. Jesus does not fulfil this role; he was not a warrior, he did not redeem the Jewish nation, he did not route its enemies, he did not bring about the Messianic age. Jesus died an ignoble death and was ‘seen’ afterwards in visions; he was as far from the anticipated Messiah as could be envisaged.

Jesus’ death and resurrection did not happen ‘according to the scriptures’. There are no prophecies in the Old Testament that pertain to Jesus, no foreshadowing of what happened to him. Christian can try to retrofit selected scriptures as much as they like to make it seem as if there are, but none hold up under scrutiny.

Why Jesus can’t possibly have known he’d ‘rise from the dead’.

Blog340JC&Peter

I said at the start of this series of posts about the date of Jesus’ crucifixion that the gospel writers perhaps felt unable to exclude Jesus’ predictions about rising from the grave after three days because these were too well-known. On reflection, it seems more likely that Jesus didn’t make any such prophecies. It is more probable that the gospel writers introduced them into their stories about him decades later.

I’ve written before about how the Resurrection appearances were nothing more than visions and dreams. Paul’s experience of the risen Jesus most certainly was – he says so himself – and Mary’s encounter with angels, telling her Jesus was no longer in his tomb, is described as ‘a vision’ in Luke 24.23. The subsequent accounts of Jesus’ post-mortem appearances also bear all the hallmarks of hallucinations; he disappears at will; passes through closed doors; isn’t always recognisable, drifts up into the sky and so on.

These mystical experiences, those that really happened anyway (it’s safe to say some – the Emmaus story, for example – are complete inventions: see Alter, pp536-8) quickly became a conviction among Jesus’ early followers that he had somehow risen from the grave. By the time of Luke’s and John’s gospel, 50 to 70 years later, this idea had evolved into a full-blown bodily resurrection.

The question is, did Jesus know that this was what was going to happen? Could he have had foreknowledge that he would be seen again after his death? Could he, during his life, have predicted he would rise bodily from the grave?

Christians will tell you that as God or God’s Son, Jesus was omniscient and therefore of course he knew these things in advance. There are, however, several good reasons why we can be sure he didn’t:

  • According to Paul, it was the resurrection that elevated Jesus to his god-like status, not his divinity that enabled the resurrection. Christians who argue that Jesus rose from the dead because he was divine have it back to front. Paul says clearly that Jesus ‘was appointed the Son of God in power by his resurrection from the dead‘ (Romans 1.4; my italics). Without the resurrection, Jesus was, Paul argues, of no great significance (1 Corinthians 12.15-19). However, the only ‘evidence’ for the resurrection is the contradictory, incompatible accounts offered by only three of the gospel writers and by Paul himself. So implausible is this evidence that we can safely conclude, with Michael J. Alter, that there was no such event. How, then, could Jesus possibly ‘know’ he’d rise from the dead when in fact he didn’t?
  • While he suffered from the delusion that he was going to rule God’s imminent Kingdom, it is unlikely Jesus thought he would have to die and be resurrected in order to do so. There was nothing in the Jewish scriptures to suggest either the Son of Man (a figure from Daniel with whom Jesus appears to have claimed some affinity) or the Messiah would be put to death only to rise again. This wasn’t what these characters were about and it wouldn’t have been how Jesus thought.
  • The Kingdom of God did not come about in the way Jesus believed. His death therefore did not bring about the apocalypse, judgement and rule of God he predicted and anticipated. In fact, his death took his cult off in a completely different direction, thanks mainly to Paul’s intervention. Jesus, and to a significant degree, the synoptic writers appear to have little awareness of this seismic shift. The Jesus they portray has little cognisance of events following his demise. Any suggestion he foresaw the creation of the Church is anachronistic, written back retrospectively into the accounts of his life. This was not what his ‘good news’ was about.

  • From their reactions preserved in the gospels, Jesus’ execution evidently came as a shock to both himself and his followers. None of them appear to have been expecting anything like a resurrection. Immediately following his death and burial, not a single one of his followers recalled his supposed predictions of his resurrection, nor did they express the sure and certain hope he would be returning. Even the discovery of the empty tomb (if it happened at all) failed to elicit such an expectation, nor any recollection of his words. The gospels say all those who witnessed the empty tomb were ‘frightened’, ‘astonished’ or ‘amazed’ that the body was missing, but not that they believed he must have risen from the dead. All those who witnessed the empty tomb behaved as if they’d never heard Jesus’ predictions that he’d be returning – probably because they hadn’t

  • It wasn’t until the ‘visions’ started that some of them began to consider the possibility that Jesus had ‘risen’. Not all were convinced, however. Matthew 28.16 notes how a number ‘doubted’ that the apparition they were seeing was Jesus. Significantly, at no point do any of those who think they’re seeing the risen Jesus say, ‘I remember him predicting this would happen.’ On every occasion, either angels or the risen Jesus himself has to explain it to them. (Of course, it’s the gospel writers doing the explaining for those hearing these stories decades later.)

All of this points to the fact that, while he was alive, Jesus didn’t make any predictions about rising from the grave on the third day, after three days, or after three days and nights; these prophecies, incompatible with each other and with the synoptic timeline, were created later, probably much later, after belief in the resurrection had become a central plank – the central plank – of the new cult. They were subsequently written back into the gospels, and placed on Jesus’ lips on the basis to show that of course he knew he’d rise again and knowing would have spoken about it.

The circle was thus complete; his early followers created the myth of Jesus’ return while later ones invented the ‘prophecies’ to bolster the belief that Jesus must have known he would. He said so, didn’t he?

Give me some of that ol’… New Testament scholarship?

Blog336JC&Kids

Roger E. Olson has deigned to reply to me! He says that every fule know there are multiple Jesuses in the New Testament. All the same, Rog is sure he has a pretty clear picture of the real one, even if this is only in his own head. Then I hit the jackpot! Rog treats me to one of the Christian apologist’s top retorts: those with dissenting views know nothing about New Testament scholarship.

Here’s his response in all its glory:

I hear your suggestion, but I’m not sure what it has to do with atheism. All serious New Testament scholars–including the most conservative Christian ones–already know and admit that the gospel portraits of Jesus differ somewhat from each other. But very early in Christian history all attempts to reduce them to one portrait (one united gospel stitched together from the four in our New Testament) were rejected as heretical. We Christians already know what you say and it doesn’t bother us. I have read numerous biographies of Abraham Lincoln, for example, and the “man himself” stands out in spite of differences of description from different points of view. Your point is simplistic and displays that you know little or nothing about New Testament scholarship.

My reply to this, which Roger hasn’t seen fit to post:

So you think one has to be fully cognizant with New Testament scholarship to be a Christian? Funny, I don’t find any of the Jesuses in the bible saying that. Doesn’t one of them suggest we ‘become as little children’? Still, I expect you’re right: if you need a level of understanding that’s the equivalent of a doctorate to follow Jesus, then I guess I don’t qualify.

As for what my comment has to do with atheism, you were the one who said we see God most clearly in Jesus. I responded by saying I don’t see God in any of the interpretations. If Jesus is the best reflection we have of God, as you suggest, then his failed prophecies, false promises and general ignorance make it probable that the God he, and you, promote doesn’t exist.

If you can cherry-pick which bits of the bible are relevant to your understanding of the divine, Roger (you dismiss, for example, the barbarity of the Old Testament), then it is not unreasonable for others to do the same, even if we aren’t as well versed in Christian mumbo-jumbo theology as you.

God is revealed in Jesus… or not

 

Blog335CompositeOn his blog-site, humbly named after himself, Roger E. Olson trots out the tired old cliche that there’s no such thing as atheism. Atheists, Rog tells us, know in their hearts that God exists, they just choose to ignore him. As a result, Rog has little time for atheism. (I discovered Roger’s wonderfully smug site through Bruce Gerenscer’s excellent one.)

Rog says that if we want to see what this heart-implanted God looks like, then we shouldn’t look to the Old Testament and the tribal warlord we find there – goodness me, no; we can safely discard him! That God just doesn’t match up to our twenty-first century sensibilities. No, if we want to see God then what we must do is look at Jesus, for in Jesus we see what God is really like.

Oops! We’re right back at the problem I’ve been discussing these last few posts: just which Jesus are we talking about? There are so many. There’s the Jesus of the synoptic gospels (though he’s neither consistent nor pleasant), who is nothing like the self-obsessed Jesus of John’s gospel. Paul’s Christ is different again; he’s a complete invention, much like the Jesus of Hebrews who has morphed into a Jewish High Priest. The Jesus of Revelation meanwhile is an Evil Mutant straight out of the Marvel Universe, what with swords coming out of his mouth and all. So which Jesus has Rog got in mind? I think we should be told.

There are so many discrepancies in the various interpretations of Jesus in the New Testament, that it’s hard to see a clear, consistent picture of anything, let alone God, in such a shifting kaleidoscope of images. I’ve recommend that Rog should take atheism a little more seriously; the often incompatible Jesuses of the bible don’t reveal ‘the true nature of God’ anywhere as clearly as he claims. I’d go further: none of them show – can possibly show – what the non-existent is ‘really’ like. What they reveal instead are ideas about a God and a saviour made entirely in the image of the men who tasked themselves with creating them.

Thou shalt worship False Idols

Blog335Trump

Franklin Graham was in England over the weekend, to preach at Blackpool’s presumptuous ‘Festival of Hope’. There was considerable opposition to his presence from, amongst others, the town council and local churches. One objection in particular stood out: Nina Parker, a minister at Blackpool’s Liberty church said –

(Graham) seems committed to condemnation, discrimination, walls and prejudice in a way that Jesus never was.

‘In a way that Jesus never was?’ Has Nina read the gospels? I feel sure she must have done – and yet, she, along with many others, still sees a Jesus as a beautiful soul, full of love, kindness and forgiveness. Many Christians, like Nina, don’t let the evidence (such as it is) interfere with their own inaccurate construct(s) of him. Their reading is coloured by their preconceptions to such an extent they can’t see that, while he may occasionally pay lip-service to being nice, Jesus is, as we saw last time, actually a bit of a shit.

Should you doubt it, there’s his

advocacy of cruelty and self-harm –

If anyone causes one of these little ones – those who believe in me – to stumble, it would be better for them to have a large millstone hung around their neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea. (Mattthew 18.6)

enthusiasm for destruction –

I have come to bring fire on the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! (Luke 12.49)

disrespect for life and propensity for violence –

If a man abide not in me, he is cast forth as a branch, and is withered; and men gather them, and cast them into the fire, and they are burned. (John 15.6)

disdain for non-Jews –

(Jesus said) “I was only sent to the lost sheep of Israel.” The woman came and knelt before him. “Lord, help me!” she said. He replied, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.” (Matt 15.24-26)

exclusion of those who would follow him –

And He told them, “The mystery of the kingdom of God has been given to you, but to those on the outside, everything is expressed in parables so that, “‘they may be ever seeing but never perceiving, and ever hearing but never understanding; otherwise they might turn and be forgiven!'” (Mark 4.11-12)

contempt for those who don’t subscribe to his ‘good news’ –

it will be more bearable for Sodom and Gomorrah on the day of judgment than for that town (that isn’t interested in his message.) (Matthew 10.15)

contempt for those who do –

So you also, when you have done everything you were told to do, should say, ‘We are unworthy servants (slaves); we have only done our duty.'” (Luke 17.10)

delusions of grandeur –

Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, at the renewal of all things, when the Son of Man is seated on the throne of his glory, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. (Matthew 19.28)

Is this the Jesus Nina Parker speaks of, the one with no time for ‘condemnation, discrimination, walls and prejudice’?

Hardly.

Nor do Christians reserve such cherry-picking for their saviour. Many of them make the same allowances for Donald Trump, proclaiming him to be God’s choice for president because he’s anti-abortion, anti-LGBT and makes the right noises about Christians’ religious liberty (and no-one else’s). Trump’s corruption, dishonesty, pettiness, serial adulteries, misogyny and self-obsession, together with the absence of any behaviour that might reasonably be considered ‘Christian’, are ignored, excused and dismissed; he couldn’t be a Man of God with characteristics like these – and a Man of God of God he most definitely is: Franklin Graham says so.

Turning a blind eye to the many obvious faults of their heroes is something Christians have always been good at, making false idols of Trump and Jesus alike.

So it begins…

Jesus Lazes

A true story:

They didn’t see it coming. No-one did. It couldn’t have been predicted. He came into their lives unexpectedly one summer evening and none of them would ever be the same again.

He met Maddy first, then Andrew and soon after that the rest of the group. He was quiet, diffident even, but from the start his personality shone, his smile captivating them all. Some fell in love with him immediately, others later but either way, there was no escape. His zest for life was infectious, his gentle, thoughtful ways drew in all who encountered him. He didn’t demand change or presume to tell them how they should live, but his unaffected presence changed them all and added immeasurably to each of their lives.

And so the cult of Salvatore began, in the way that all cults begin, with a charismatic personality. When that individual seeks to manipulate and control others, particularly if he or she has Messianic aspirations, then before long an agenda emerges: unquestioning obedience; the belief that only this leader has the Truth; the demand that acolytes abandon family, friends and society for the cause; the proselytising to increase followers; the expectation that others acknowledge the leader’s power and glory; the rejection of those who fail to do so. This is how it was with Jesus, Muhammed, the Buddha, Joseph Smith, Mary Eddy Baker and so many others

The Salvatore cult won’t come to this; the man himself is neither controlling nor manipulative, though there are those who would do anything for him. Myself included.