The disciples who doubted the Resurrection

Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted.

Matthew 28.17

On his Escaping Christian Fundamentalism blog recently, Gary Matson looked at this verse in which the remaining disciples supposedly encounter the risen Jesus. Gary discussed why they should have doubted what they are reported as witnessing, concluding that what they were actually ‘seeing’ was a ghost. A commenter called Rachel, who has also commented here, objected, arguing that the verse didn’t mean what it actually says. I responded with the following:

Well, let’s not, Rachel, accept what the text actually says. Let’s impose our own meaning that fits with what we want to believe. Then we can insist that none of the 11 doubted, even though the text clearly states they did. Let’s supplement that particular sleight of hand with the unproven myth that all the disciples except one subsequently died for their faith (even though there’s no evidence they did and even though we know nothing about the actual beliefs of the few who may have been martyred and even though zealots today are prepared to die for their beliefs despite never having seen the risen Jesus) and, hey presto, Gary’s hypothesis is disproved.

Except, of course, it isn’t. The resurrection accounts were written 40 years or more after the supposed event by people who weren’t there; and yet still they preserve the inconvenient fact that some of the disciples remained unconvinced by the visions and apparitions others of their number thought they’d experienced.

Rachel came back with this (my responses are in red with additional comments in blue).

Neil, you write the following as if you know for a fact (100%) that “there’s no evidence” — “(even though there’s no evidence they did and even though we know nothing about the actual beliefs of the few who may have been martyred and even though zealots today are prepared to die for their beliefs despite never having seen the risen Jesus)”

If I understand Rachel here, she isn’t happy I can’t prove a negative. However, if there’s no evidence, there’s no evidence. This in itself is a fact.

Neil, none of the 11 apostles/disciples of Jesus lied and died and convinced their families and loved ones to die for a fictional character. Unlike you and Gary, they literally saw the resurrected Jesus (that was enough evidence for them) and they spread the gospel (the good news of the Promised Messiah and that in Him the Old Testament pointed)

You’re right, Rachel, we have no evidence that any of them did any of this. This was the point I was making: there is no historical evidence whatsoever that indicates 10 of the 11 died for their belief in the resurrection. With the exception of James we simply don’t know how, when or why they died. I’m sorry you were unable to grasp this point.

Neither is there evidence ‘they literally saw the resurrected Jesus’. In fact, the only evidence there is, in the gospels, is sketchy, inconsistent and strongly suggestive of visions and apparitions, as Gary suggests. The only eye-witness report we have of the resurrected Jesus, that of Paul, is precisely of this nature, with Paul claiming the other sightings of Jesus were the same as his.

You say that “zealots today are prepared to die for their beliefs despite never having seen the risen Jesus.” Care to give me examples of Christian Zealots today “prepared to die for the risen Jesus” sight unseen?

Are you really questioning whether zealots today are prepared to die for a character they’ve never actually seen? A simple Google search brings up numerous Christian sites, either celebrating or lamenting this very fact. Here’s one to start you off: https://www.opendoorsusa.org/christian-persecution/stories/11-christians-killed-every-day-for-their-decision-to-follow-jesus/

And like Gary, there you go saying: “we know nothing!” Okay, I will agree with you and Gary, both of you have convinced me totally -— you guys know nothing! You will no longer get any argument from me! You guys know nothing! I am now fully convinced by your: “We (Gary and Neil) don’t know” true statement.

While I didn’t point it out to her, Rachel here assumes that acknowledging ‘there is no evidence for..’ means the same as ‘we know nothing’. A very basic and disingenuous error.

Ironic isn’t it, Neil, you do not believe the New Testament accounts as historical events, and yet you like Gary proceed to prove your case by using “fictional” accounts! Go figure!

Gary and I look at the texts as they are and draw our conclusions accordingly. We, like many others outside the evangelical bubble, acknowledge that the gospels are literary creations and as such are historically unreliable. The evidence they present for an actual, physical resurrection is weak, inconclusive and distorted beyond recognition by an agenda intended to promote belief – as they themselves admit.

You, on the other hand, argue entirely from a position of faith, which prevents you from seeing what is actually there, making you dismissive of external evidence and compelling you to supplement your arguments with assumptions (for example, that most of the disciples died for their belief in the resurrection.) It also prompts you to add unnecessary ad hominem insults. I’m sure Gary is as glad as I am that you’re slinking away in defeat.

Some of the disciples doubted that what they were seeing – apparition? bright light? hallucination? – was really Jesus returned from the dead. It may be the case that this detail was included by the creator of Matthew’s gospel, 50 years after the event it describes, to disparage the favoured disciples of other early Christian communities. The disciples they looked to weren’t as good as those of Matthew’s cultists because they doubted. Who knows. Whatever the reason for including it, the verse is awkward and embarrassing for believers today. How to explain it (away)? Even some of those who ‘saw’ the risen Jesus weren’t convinced it was him. They were right. It wasn’t.

 

Why the Nativity reflects the fantasist mentality of those who created it.

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The Nativity story tells us nothing about Jesus’ origins but plenty about the mindset of those who created it, decades after he lived.

They believed in angels. There are several visitations in the two versions of the story in Matthew and Luke: ‘Gabriel’ appears to Zechariah and strikes him dumb. Gabriel, again, manifests in front of Mary to tell her she hasn’t really been knocked up by a Roman soldier but that she’s going to be impregnated by the Holy Spirit. He then makes a lot of false promises too about how the boy will turn out. Later, a whole host of angels appear to some shepherds to tell them they’ll find a baby in a manger, news, that for some reason, they find amazing.

The creators of the gospels also believed that spirits were everywhere and that one of them was holy. Never mind that, according to John 14.16 & 16.7, the Holy Spirit doesn’t make its appearance until after Jesus’ ascension. In the nativity story, the Holy Spirit ‘speaks’ to Elizabeth, Simeon and Anna (how?) to tell them that Mary’s baby will be special.

The creators of the nativity myth also believed in dreams and visions. Joseph has a dream telling him to take his family to Egypt and the misnamed ‘wise men’ have a dream (just the one or did all of them have the same dream?) telling them not to go back to Herod. What a pity they didn’t ‘dream’ they shouldn’t call on him in the first place.

Angels, spirits and dreams are the context from which the gospel stories emerge: the gospel writers, and those who created their sources, believed implicitly that angels (and devils and demons) were real and that God communicated with them through dreams and visions. More than this, these same people accepted that the dead could return to life. According to the gospels, long-dead people could manifest themselves, and would appear and speak to the living (e.g: Matthew 17.1-3).

Incredibly, 1 in 3 people in the UK, a largely secular society, believes in angels. People with such a mentality were the ones who, 2000 years ago, claimed to have seen Jesus resurrected. Yet Christians insist they were stable, rational, reliable witnesses (never mind that the accounts of such appearances were written third, fourth, fifth hand, decades later.) Any such witnesses were neither stable nor reliable. They were the product of a pre-scientific culture that thought angels and devils populated the very air (Ephesians 6.12); that ancient celebrities could reappear in new bodies (Matthew 11.14; 14.1-2; 16.14); that without doubt that gods spoke to humans in dreams and that angels could and did appear bodily in front of favoured believers. People of such a culture, like Jesus himself, his early followers and the gospel writers, were fully primed, as a result, to have ‘supernatural’ encounters – or at least to interpret other experiences as such. They literally knew no better.

The stories that they wrote, with their supernatural beings and premonitionary dreams and visions – the Nativity, Jesus’ miracles and the Resurrection – are just that: stories, and the truth is not in them.

A happy Christmas to both my readers.

How to work out when Jesus died

Blog338Darkness

When did Jesus die? The year, I mean.

The honest answer is we don’t know. In Michael J. Alter’s The Resurrection: A Critical Enquiry, recommended by John Loftus’s Debunking Christianity blog-site, the author considers twelve different dates that have been proposed, together with the reasons why. Ultimately though, we don’t know.

Which is strange, not only because, as Alter points out, Jesus’ death and resurrection are supposedly the most significant events ever to have happened in the entire history of the world, but because it should be really easy to pinpoint the date. It was the year there was –

  • a total eclipse of the sun that, for over three hours, plunged the whole land (some translations have ‘earth’) into darkness,
  • an earthquake that caused appreciable damage, 
  • the tearing from top to bottom of the four inch thick, 82 feet high curtain in the temple,
  • the dead rising from their graves to make themselves known to the inhabitants of Jerusalem (including, presumably, the extensive Roman presence.)

We know this because the gospels tell us so; these events all took place either just before (Luke) or just after (Matthew) Jesus’ death. Let’s overlook the fact that solar eclipses don’t ever occur at the point of a full moon, while Passover, when Jesus died, happens only when there is one, and take a look at Matthew’s version of events:

From noon on, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon. And about three o’clock Jesus cried with a loud voice… and breathed his last. At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. The earth shook, and the rocks were split. The tombs also were opened, and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised. After his resurrection they came out of the tombs and entered the holy city and appeared to many. (Matthew 27.45, 46, 51-53)

All we need to do, therefore, is look for corroboration of these four cataclysmic events occurring together in the records of the time. (The Romans were particularly good at recording such things; we know, for example, there was an eclipse in AD29, though that lasted a measly 2 minutes.) Once we’ve found this corroborative evidence, we’ll know for certain the year in which Jesus died.

But you’re ahead of me: there is no record anywhere, apart from the gospels, of these events ever taking place, certainly not in combination. No record of a widespread darkness, nor of an accompanying earthquake nor of the temple veil tearing from top to bottom, nor of the dead emerging from their tombs. Which isn’t to say they didn’t happen, but you’d think someone, somewhere would have noticed and would have written about them. Josephus maybe, or Plutarch, Greek or Roman authorities, or even Paul; anyone writing at the time or soon after; any of those whose history of the period has survived.

But no.

It’s enough to make you think these earth-shattering events didn’t really happen; that they’re all made up for theological reasons.

And you’d be right.

The Christian blog that knows better than Jesus

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The superior intellects at Triablogue responded to my comment (see previous post below) by telling me they’d already dealt with the claim that Jesus believed the arrival of the Son of Man/the End of the Age/the Final Judgement and God’s Kingdom on Earth were imminent.

They directed me to one of their articles, Misdating the Second Coming, which argues that neither Jesus nor Paul really believed the end was nigh and that the texts which suggest they were need to be interpreted carefully (i.e. to get round what they clearly say to make them say something else.)

I can’t find any other instance of Triablogue contributors proposing that Jesus didn’t really say what the gospels have him say. They don’t dispute, for example, the so-called great commission in Matthew 28.19 (‘Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit‘) even though, with its Trinitarian formulation, Jesus almost certainly didn’t say it. Instead, the know-alls at Triablogue  reserve their hedging for the prophecies that patently failed to materialise, on the basis that Jesus couldn’t possibly have been wrong so he must have meant something else.

I’ve written several posts under the banner Making Excuses for Jesus, on the varied and feeble attempts Christians make to get round the fact the synoptic gospels consistently have Jesus say the Kingdom of God, and all that accompanies it, are just around the corner. His early followers all believed this and his eschatological pronouncements are recorded in all of the earliest texts. Mark’s gospel includes his prophecies about the Son of Man while Matthew and Luke include material not found in Mark from their ‘M’ and ‘L’ (oral?) sources that warn it is the ‘eleventh hour’. The entire thrust of the synoptic gospels is that the Kingdom is about to arrive and therefore people need to be prepared for it: ‘The time is fulfilled, the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe the good news’ (Mark 1.15).

The sayings gospel ‘Q’, which predates Mark and was probably in circulation only a few years after Jesus died, preserves several Son of Man sayings; he would be appearing soon to kick-start the Kingdom. Paul, writing decades before the gospels, tells his readers to expect the Second Coming – the Son of Man having become Jesus himself – while he and they are still alive (Thessalonians 4.14-15). Likewise, the anonymous writer of Hebrews believed he lived in the ‘last days’ (1.1-2) while the nutjob who concocted Revelation claimed he was quoting the Risen Jesus promising he would ‘surely come quickly’ (22.20). The imminence of God’s Kingdom on Earth is the consistent message of the New Testament.

And what do the cerebral Christians at Triablogue do when confronted with a summary of these facts? They don’t approve my comment, that’s what. I guess that’s all you can do when you really don’t have an answer for why your Savior™ got everything so drastically wrong; dishonestly pretend he didn’t and silence those who show that he did

The Eye-witness Fallacy

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The falsehood that the gospels are in some way eye-witness reports just won’t go away. There is no evidence they are or even that they are based on reports by eye-witnesses. Scholars speak of ‘sources’ for all elements of the gospels (Mark, Q, M & L); these were almost certainly pre-existing written and oral traditions from before the gospels’ creation.

This really is problematic for those propagating the idea that the gospels are eye-witness accounts. If they were even so much as based on eye-witness reports, then why would they need to rely so heavily on other traditions? If, as is claimed here, the scattered gospel communities who wrote them were in some sort of immediate contact with the fanned-out eye-witnesses, then they would have no need to use sources and traditions from elsewhere. Yet they do; Matthew and Luke borrow extensively from a shared source (Q) and also from Mark, particularly for their resurrection stories.

This is akin to someone today interviewing witnesses to John F. Kennedy’s assassination, – a similar interval to that between Jesus and the gospels of Matthew, Luke and John – and then, before publication, replacing what the eye-witnesses say they saw with the more far-fetched elements of Oliver Stone’s movie JFK. If there were eye-witnesses to hand, there wouldn’t be any need to do this. It doesn’t make the slightest sense that the gospel writers would do so. Yet they do.

As far as the stories of the resurrection are concerned, it is much more likely they are based, not on any eye-witness accounts, but on the scant mentions of the mystical, risen Christ of the kind we find in Paul’s letters, filtered, primarily, through Mark. As such, they are a fleshing out (almost literally) of hearsay reports of a limited number of visions that, by the time the gospels came to be written, had embedded themselves in the traditions of the early church.

God’s Election

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As we saw in the previous post, the Bible tells us that God chose his ‘Elect’* before the creation of the world (Ephesians 1.4-6). Which begs the questions –

1: On what basis did God select the favoured few untold aeons before they were born? Did he decide by looking at their dress sense, as Jesus’ parable in Matthew 22.1-14 suggests? I guess it must be, given the Bible is the ‘literal’ word of God.

Or did God assess ahead of time just how righteous his Chosen would turn out to be? In Matthew 25.31-46 Jesus says righteousness is the yard stick (though naturally Christians don’t believe him because Paul says something different).

Or did God decide in advance – Paul says he ‘foreknew’ – who would repent and turn to Jesus, free-will be damned? Maybe, but then Jesus suggests that not everyone who does even this will make it into God’s Kingdom (Matthew 22.1-14).

What a bummer! Looks like God’s decision is/was purely arbitrary. You make it, or not, on the whim of a capricious monster.

2: What’s the point of evangelism? If God chose who was going to have eternal life/enter the Kingdom/live in Heaven before the creation of the world, then there can be absolutely no need for anyone to tell anyone else about Jesus, sin and salvation. Why? Because it makes no difference; God’s Chosen will remain his Chosen, as they were long before they were born, and he’ll be sure to rescue them once they die. Those who haven’t been pre-selected will stay lost and will go to Hell whether or not they’ve heard or responded to the gospel.

‘But how will the unsaved Chosen hear the message if we don’t tell them?’ ask our zealous evangelical friends, still not getting the point. Jesus, lads! The Chosen don’t need to hear the gospel: God – has – already – chosen – them. They will go to Heaven, live in the Kingdom or whatever, regardless of your efforts. You and your evangelism are superfluous.

3: How can you be sure, if you’re a Christian, that you’re of the ‘Elect’ and so destined for Eternal Life? Yes, you’ve chosen Jesus – but has he chosen you? How can you know? Your own sense of righteousness, your faith, self-sacrifice and adherence to sound doctrine (whatever that is) are no guide to whether or not you’ve made the grade. Only God knows that, and he’s not telling.

Not yet, anyway, so you’d best make sure you’re buried in your very best clothes, just in case.

* Jesus is made to call the chosen few ‘the Elect’ in Matt 24.22, 24 & 31; Mark 13.20, 22 & 27 and Luke 18.7.

Let’s Talk About Sex

Green&Daley

Oh, go on let’s…

The average person has sex about 2,500 times in their lives and produces an average of 2 children. In other words, a mere 0.08% of the sex they have leads to procreation. This means that the remaining 99.92% is entirely recreational. People have sex together because it feels good or helps them be close to someone they love or because they enjoy it, or all three, plus a multitude of other reasons. Even if we were to increase tenfold the number of occasions when sex is intended to produce babies but doesn’t, that still leaves 99.2% of the time when sex is just sex.

So why is it, holy readers of this unholy blog, do you insist that sex is only for procreation (like you do here, here and here)? If that’s all it’s for, shouldn’t you produce more offspring every time you and your partner have sex? Yet you don’t. Even those extremists among you who have 8 or 12 children still have sex a hell of lot of times when it doesn’t result in another kid and isn’t meant to. Most of you use contraception to actively prevent procreation and have all the fun sex you want, whenever you want, without risking another pregnancy. Surely your God can’t possibly approve when he made sex exclusively for reproduction.

Catholics – you don’t get off the hook either; you have lot of sex that doesn’t lead to babies too (or you’d be clocking up kids by the dozen by now). How’d you manage that, I wonder? Same way everybody else does, I’d guess. And what about all the jerking off to porn that macho Christian men enjoy? That for procreative purposes too?

So, why is it you keep telling the rest of us that sex is only for procreation? Let me tell you – because it’s part of your anti-gay agenda. ‘Filthy gays,’ you’re saying, ‘having all that sex that can’t possibly lead to procreation, sex that’s just for fun, that might be with more partners than I’ll ever manage’ (though multiple partners and sex outside those ‘one man/one woman’ marriages you care so much about are pretty common among Christians – but you don’t want that mentioned either). While it may come as a surprise, most gay people are not infertile; they are quite capable of ‘procreating’; given the problems of overpopulation, shouldn’t you be grateful many don’t? Or maybe, like spiteful nutjob Stephen Green in his recent rant about Tom Daley, you like to make the bleedin’ obvious point that gay men need ‘a girl’ in order to reproduce… just like straight men do.

‘But,’ you say, ‘gay sex is between two men – maybe more – or two women (maybe more) and that’s so downright distasteful and disgusting. The Bible says so and I believe it.’ Of course, you’d believe it even if the Bible didn’t say so. So what if it does? Do you honestly think the rest of us care what a bunch of ancient tribesmen and other sex-obsessed fanatics thought?

For men and women who are gay, sex with each other is far from disgusting or distasteful. It’s every bit as exciting, loving and fulfilling as all the fun sex you have. Unless of course, yours isn’t.

Your ranting about recreational sex, gay or otherwise, is just so much hypocrisy. You like it yourself, or else you wouldn’t do it (and you do do it) yet you don’t want the rest of us doing it with the consenting adults we find attractive. Until you’re prepared to give up sex so Jesus will let you in his Magic Kingdom (like he says you should in Matthew 19.10-15 and Luke 20.34-35) then do us all a favour and shut the fuck up about all the great sex the rest of us are having.

 

 

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.