Jesus: Speak not clearly did he

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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)

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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.

The Curious Case of the False News Nativity

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Over on his Biblical Musing blog, Don Camp is eager to show us how, despite their disparities and contradictions, the two very different nativity stories in Matthew and Luke ‘mesh perfectly’.

Let’s take a closer look at some of that perfect meshing, shall we?

Herod v. Quirinius

First, the two accounts can’t even agree on when Jesus was born: Matthew’s gospel claims it was when Herod the Great was king (Matthew 2.1) while Luke says it was when Quirinius was governor of Syria (Luke 2.2). Yet Herod died in 4BCE and Quirinius didn’t become governor of Syria until nine years later, in 6CE. So Jesus couldn’t have been born at a time when both men were in their respective positions. This anomaly, as we’ll see, is a serious problem for the two accounts.

Census v. no census

Luke contrives to get Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem to fulfil the prophecy of Micah 5.2 which said the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem. He comes up with the idea that these Nazareth residents trekked all the way to Bethlehem – a journey of about 80 miles – because of a Roman census. The Romans did indeed conduct a census in 6CE (which presumably is why Luke wants the story to take place then) but it would not have entailed anyone travelling to their ancestral home. Why would it? Can you imagine the chaos that would ensue? The Romans would not, and did not, impose such a ridiculous demand on an already disgruntled populace.

Matthew, meanwhile, doesn’t mention any census – his Jesus was born about 11 years earlier – and he seems to think the family already lives in Bethlehem (Matthew 2.11 & 16). So, was Bethlehem their home as Matthew implies, or did they have to travel there from Nazareth, as Luke insists? Or had they nothing at all to do with Bethlehem? Matthew and Luke’s contradictory accounts are nothing more than clumsy attempts to show that Micah’s ‘prophecy’ is fulfilled in Jesus.

The Manger v. no manger

If they already lived in Bethlehem as Matthew suggests, there would be no reason for Mary and Joseph to search out an inn in which to stay for a census that had nothing to do with them. No inn, no ‘stable’ (though neither gospel mentions a stable as such) and therefore no manger. Yet there it is in Luke 2.7. It’s totally absent from Matthew’s account where, presumably, Mary simply had the baby at home.

Related v. Do I know you?

Luke has a long fable about the pregnancies of both Mary and Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist. He says the two women are related, possibly as cousins, making Jesus and John second cousins. The fourth gospel, however, asserts that the adult Jesus and John don’t know each other (John 1.33), while Matthew – and Mark too – don’t consider any of this significant enough to mention.

Don thinks the gaps in each account are just fine because God arranged for them to be covered by the other gospels. Yet only Matthew and Luke think to include anything about Jesus’ birth, and much of that is contradictory. Don’t Mark and John know anything about it? Was it not important to them? Even Paul, writing closest to Jesus’ lifetime doesn’t see fit to refer to it. Mary, whom both Matthew and Luke say was a participant in events, seems to have forgotten all about them when she later considers her adult son to be out of his mind (Mark 3.21).

The wandrin’ star v. clear blue skies

Nobody but Matthew mentions the star. Was Luke unaware of it? How about everyone else? If it was as astronomically significant as the story suggests, shouldn’t there be a record of it somewhere? And do stars, billions of miles from the Earth, really lead the way to a single spot here on the planet’s surface? Nobody but Matthew falls for this one – but then he would; he’s the one making it up.

Shepherds v. Astrologers

Luke has shepherds, Matthew astrologers who ‘visit the house’ where Jesus lived. Which is it – shepherds or astrologers? Both? If so, why does neither gospel writer mention the other’s set of visitors? Could it be that the shepherds and astrologers have their own symbolic significance in the gospel in which they appear and are therefore literary inventions? One suspects it could be.

Massacre v. nothing to see here

Herod the Great, who died, remember, almost a decade before the Roman census, orders the murder of all baby boys up to two years of age. At least he does in Matthew (2.16-18); Luke knows nothing of this so called ‘Slaughter of the Innocents’, presumably because Herod had been dead nine years by the time his story is set and, presumably, because it never happened. There is no record of such an atrocity anywhere in the historical record. Surely the Romans would have had something to say about it, given Herod was greatly exceeding his powers as a puppet ruler. One might almost think Matthew invented the whole thing just to make it look like another ‘prophecy’ was being fulfilled (Jeremiah 13.15 this time).

Egypt v. home for tea

Matthew (2.13-18) has the family flee to Egypt after the visit of the astrologers to avoid Herod’s hissy-fit and then when he dies (two years later?) they return to make their home in Nazareth (Matthew 2.19-23). According to Luke, however, they lived in Nazareth before the birth (Luke 1.26) and simply went back there once they’d had the eight-day old baby circumcised (Luke 2.38); no mention of the Egypt trip nor of Herod (unsurprisingly when he’s long dead according to Luke’s chronology.)

So there you have it. You be the judge of how ‘perfectly’ the two stories ‘mesh together’. And while you’re doing that, be sure to have a wonderful, superstition-free Christmas.

Recent Encounters of the Religious Kind

2. Maria and the Evil One

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Maria comes to the door again. She’s very personable but wasting away her life as a Jehovah’s Witness. She wonders if I’ve read the leaflet she left last time. I have, and have filled in the answers to its questions, including, ‘does the Bible have the answers to life’s big questions?’ Maria doesn’t seem very happy about my answer.

She insists on showing me a video on her iPad. It is slick and includes some clever CGI. She tells me afterwards that the ‘Evil One’ is in control of this world which is why it is in such a mess. I tell her that any mess is our own doing, we humans. She asks if I know the Bible; I say I do. She tells me that Jehovah’s Witnesses are the only ones who interpret it correctly. It doesn’t, she says, tell us that believers will go to heaven when they die (she’s right about this; it doesn’t). It promises rather that Jesus will be coming back to set up God’s Kingdom on Earth (right again). Except, I remind her, it has him promise that he will return within the lifetime of those listening to him, the Kingdom scheduled to appear within his own generation (Matthew 16:27-28; Matthew 24:27, 30-31, 34; Luke 21:27-28, 33-34). Maria concedes the point and then tries to say a generation is longer than we think. Maybe so, I say, but not 2,000 years.

Maria says she learnt something about this problem in a class recently. She appeals to her confederate for help, but he can’t remember what the elders said either. She decides now retreat is the better part of proselytising but promises to return once she has the answer.

But there is no answer; at least not one that sees Jesus’ megalomanic fantasies realised two millennia in his future.

I feel certain that, unlike Jesus, Maria will be back soon.

 

 

 

Who wrote the Bible?

According to Christians, Moses wrote the first five books of the Bible; Genesis to Deuteronomy are widely known as ‘the books of Moses’. There is little evidence Moses had anything to do with them and plenty that he didn’t. The narrative, for example, is never once in the first person; it’s all ‘Moses ordered this slaughter, Moses ordered that slaughter’, never ‘I was the bastard who ordered all the genocide.’ Maybe he was embarrassed about it or – much more likely – it was written by someone else..

In fact, the books were compiled from a range of sources, including stories from other cultures. They reached the form in which we know them around 600-400BC, a mere eight hundred to a thousand years after Moses was supposed to have lived. The events and folk-heroes they describe are demonstrably mythical.

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Christians like to say that King David wrote many of the Psalms. While David’s name is attached to 73 of the 150, there is no reason to conclude he wrote them. It is more likely ‘of David’ serves as a dedication to a revered (and long dead) figure and may, indeed, have been added much later. The Psalms were actually created over an extended period of time – as much as five hundred years – by a wide range of unknown composers.DavidBelievers attribute much of the book of Proverbs to King Solomon, the fruit of David’s loins. Again, this is highly unlikely. The sayings are largely traditional and the attribution ‘is likely more concerned with labeling the material than ascribing authorship.’

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Christians believe four blokes called Matthew, Mark, Luke and John wrote the New Testament’s gospels. They didn’t. The gospels were written anonymously and did not have the traditional names attached until a century or so after their composition. None is by an eye-witness. There is no evidence that the writer of Mark was a disciple of Peter’s, nor that ‘Luke’ was a companion of Paul’s (and even if he was, this wouldn’t make him an expert on the historical Jesus), nor that ‘John’ was a bona fide disciple. The fourth gospel was written between 90 and 110CE when the disciple would have had to be between 80 and 100 years old, or, much more likely given life-expectancy in the first century, dead. There are several hands at work in ‘John’, as the gospel itself concedes (John 21.24).

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Christians insist that all of the letters attributed to Paul in the New Testament were written by him. However, despite the fact they say they’re by Paul, Colossians, Ephesians, 2 Thessalonians, 1 & 2 Timothy and Titus are not; they are forgeries. They were composed long after Paul’s death, which occurred some time around 64CE. The earliest of the forgeries, Colossians, is thought to be circa 75CE, while the ‘pastoral’ letters to Timothy and Titus may be as late as 150CE. All of the forgeries contradict the ideas expressed in Paul’s genuine letters.

PaulPeter wrote the letters that carry his name, or so god-botherers claim, but according to the Bible itself, Peter was an illiterate Galilean fisherman (Acts 4.13). The Greek of the letters supposedly by him is accomplished and the theology well developed. Did Peter have time to learn Greek and polish its written form to perfection while busy preaching the gospel to all nations? Even if he did, how did he manage to write a letter (2 Peter) concerned with conditions in the church more than a century after his time with Jesus?

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Jesus’ brothers James and Jude, we’re told, wrote the letters carrying their names. Again, they didn’t. The letter of James may have originated in the early Jerusalem church presided over by James the Just, but there’s no evidence this was Jesus’ brother. Jude is plagiarised from 2 Peter – word-for-word in places – which is itself a forgery. Would someone who knew Jesus as intimately as a brother need to steal what he had to say from an illegitimate source? Jude would have had to be well over a hundred years old to pull this one off.

Robertson2When all else fails – and it does – Christians fall back on that most implausible of last resorts, ‘the Holy Spirit’. The very breath of God, they insist, presided over the creation of the Bible from start to finish. If it did, it made a staggeringly bad job of it; misattribution, mistakes and forgeries are the hallmarks of ‘God’s precious Word’.doveAnd on this unstable foundation, this tissue of lies, rests the entire edifice that is Christianity.

(It is difficult to find online sources on the authorship of the Bible. Christians have taken over the Internet with innumerable sites insisting the Bible was written by whoever they say it was. I’ve had to fall back on Wikipedia here (the articles are pretty comprehensive) but if you don’t think it reliable enough, I recommend Bart D. Ehrman’s Forged: Writing in the Name of God – Why The Bible’s Authors Are Not Who We Think They Are.)

 

Did Jesus Exist? (part two)

WaterIf Matthew, Mark and Luke were creating a Messiah from scratch, or, more probably, recording the invention of believers who went before them, then it is unlikely they would have arrived at the loser preserved in their accounts. The Jesus we find there is nothing like the Messiah anticipated in Jewish scripture nor by Jews at the time.

He is a false prophet, his good news about the imminent arrival of the Son of Man and the Kingdom of God being patently unfulfilled. His ministry is a failure, ending as it does in ignoble execution. This is not the Messiah anyone would create if they were inventing one to satisfy the longings of a thwarted people. In particular, God’s emissary would not lose control of the situation in the way the Jesus of the synoptic gospels does. He would not allow himself to be executed by the occupying forces in the manner the gospels record. (All the surviving sources attest to his death by crucifixion; we can be fairly certain he died in this way.)

A created Messiah, on the other hand, would surely have announced the arrival of the Son of Man/Kingdom of God before leaving the stage of his own volition – ascending to heaven perhaps as some of the gospel writers eventually have him do – to await the unfolding of the events he had proclaimed. Of course, the death of a godman is a recurrent theme in the mythologies of the ancient world, so it is possible that an unpleasant death would be invented for an imaginary Jesus so that he complied with the trope. But, as I’ve already suggested, the central figure of the synoptic gospels is noticeably ungodmanlike. We only see him as such through the distorting prism of Paul’s theology; without this, we can see that the gospels of Mark, Matthew and Luke really don’t portray him like this at all.

It seems much more likely, therefore, that what the synoptic writers are conveying are distorted memories of an individual who actually lived. A man who promised much but whose mission went drastically wrong but which would, his earliest followers believed, be completed by God himself in the near future. This latter part is, as we now know, pure invention, the gospels conveying only an imaginative interpretation of this man. It would seem, nonetheless, to be an interpretation of someone – a charismatic Jewish preacher and failed heir-presumptive – who had actually lived some years before.

As I said at the beginning of this two-part post, I don’t really care whether Jesus existed or not. The end result is the same; millions of people seduced by a significance he did not have, either as a real person or as an imaginary construct. On balance, for the reasons I’ve touched on in these posts, it seems to me Jesus – Yeshua bar Yosef – did once exist. Like we all must, he died and others set about interpreting his life in their various, incompatible ways. These interpetations are all ultimately meaningless; we can be absolutely certain that, whatever the Bible and Christians today tell us, Jesus, whether he lived two thousand years ago or not, does not exist now in any shape or ethereal form.

Did Jesus Exist? (part one)

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I want to say at the outset that I don’t think it matters whether Jesus existed or not. Even if he lived, it is highly unlikely he said much that is attributed to him or that he performed the miracles ascribed to him. Neither would it be the case that he rose from the dead or became a supernatural godman afterwards. All of these supposed attributes would be, for an individual who actually existed, later accretions. The man underneath them, the so-called historical Jesus, is difficult to detect. It hardly matters to Christians; they’re really only interested in the accretions, the later add-ons, the myth the man became.

Those who think Jesus never existed raise a number of interesting points, chief of which is that what I’ve referred to as accretions, being central to subsequent Christian belief, actually came first. The accounts of Jesus’ life – the gospels – they see as later attempts to provide the myth with a ‘realistic’ back story based in history. Certainly the gospels came after Paul had had his vision and had set about interpreting it to arrive at his convoluted theology about ‘the Christ’. Jesus-belief certainly existed decades before the first gospel account, Mark’s, and was as a result entirely independent from it. In this scenario, therefore, the myth came first and the stories of Jesus were crafted afterwards as supplementary fiction.

For me, however, as problematic as the gospels are, the synoptic accounts – Matthew, Mark and Luke – are largely at odds with Paul’s theology. If they were written to bolster the myth of a supernatural godman, they don’t do it very well. John’s gospel, on the other hand, is much more successful in portraying a mythical being, which is why its implausible ‘Word became flesh’ is not very much like the Jesus of the synoptic gospels.

The synoptics of course have their own agendas and do not represent accurate biographies of Jesus either – there are too many contradictions and anomalies to claim they do – but, to varying degrees, they do not present a Jesus who is the embodiment of Pauline theology. The synoptic Jesus doesn’t, for example, promote a salvation plan involving his own death or say that faith is the means by which one enters the Kingdom of God. These are ideas of Paul’s, as are notions of grace, election, sanctification, redemption, substitutionary atonement, imputation, gifts and fruits of the Spirit and even more mumbo-jumbo besides.

The good news of the synoptics’ Jesus, however, is that God’s Kingdom is coming to Earth soon and to be part of it one must become ‘righteous’ both by serving others and relating to them in a ‘measure for measure’ way: forgiving in order to be forgiven, being compassionate to be shown compassion, giving in order to receive, not judging so as to avoid being judged. This Jesus and his gospel are, moreover, predominantly Jewish; Matthew’s version in particular is virulently anti-Gentile. All of this is totally at odds with the magic formula of salvation-available-to-all of Paul’s make-believe. If this came first, it is difficult to see why the synoptic gospels would not present, as John does, a Jesus who is more compatible with it.

Either the synoptic gospel writers got much wrong in providing the Christ’s supposed back story or they were representing other traditions, ones that were different from and possibly even older than Paul’s interpretation. Belief in Jesus as teacher, prophet and, possibly, Messiah predates Paul (he refers to it himself while Matthew and Luke make use of an earlier sayings gospel known as ‘Q’) and it seems likely that Mark and Matthew in particular reflect these traditions, untainted by Paul’s fantasies. Of course these traditions too could have been invented, just as Paul’s theology is, but if that is the case, then, once again, the gospel writers – Mark and Matthew especially – make a decidedly bad job of it.

Next: what this ‘bad job’ tells us about the existence of Jesus.