Goodbye, Jesus

The Jesus narrative is a made-up story, originally created by a member of one of the many branches of a first century cult centred on a supernatural being experienced in visions. We call this cult member ‘Mark’. His ‘gospel’ was not written to convert anyone – I doubt any of them were – it was written as a ‘what if?’ story for fellow cult members: ‘what if our celestial saviour had lived on Earth?’ It is made up of St Paul’s teaching, Old Testament mythology, and ideas taken from pagan dying-god myths (probably in that order). It amalgamates the cult’s rules with what cultists believed about the end of the age: that their celestial saviour would very soon be coming down to Earth to save them and annihilate their enemies.

Ten or fifteen years later, another writer took Mark’s fiction and rewrote much of it for his branch of the cult. This was a group who saw themselves as still firmly within Judaism, so ‘Matthew’ toned down Paul’s teaching, eliminating a good deal of it. He heightened Jewish teaching for his co-religionists, and created a Jesus who was a manifestation of prophecy, as he saw it, from the Jewish scriptures. This construct had no time for any magic salvation-formula; like the cult who created him, he taught obedience to Jewish Law and believed that serving others was the way to eternal life.

A few years on and a third sect found Mark and Matthew’s stories weren’t entirely to their liking. They didn’t quite get Jesus right. So they took them and altered them again. Their scribe, known now as Luke, created a third Jesus. It’s possible this sect didn’t realise the original story was fiction. There’s some evidence Luke thought Jesus had really existed, 50 years or so before he remodelled him.

Later still, the creators (plural) of a fourth gospel created a Christ totally unlike the other three. This branch of the cult had ceased to believe, perhaps because it hadn’t happened when earlier believers said it would, that the saviour would be coming through the clouds at any minute to set up God’s kingdom on Earth. That part of the original idea was dropped; this Jesus is made to preach an internalised salvation, and everlasting life in heaven is beginning to be hinted at.

And that’s it. The adventures of Jesus on Earth began as a ‘what if?’ story created for existing cult members. Other branches of the cult took it and reshaped its central character so that he suited their needs and beliefs. A real Jesus was not necessary for any of this to happen. Just as it was for Paul, whether one existed or not is immaterial,. Even if he did, we can know nothing about him. The Jesuses created by each sect is a product of what they imagined their saviour to be, just like the various Christs that are worshipped today.

So, I’m saying a final goodbye to Jesus – or rather to all the Jesuses, Christs and made-up Messiahs spawned by the visions, fantasies and fan-fiction of the first century. I don’t need them, and neither do you.

This blog will be taking a new direction in the new year. Next time, though, I hope you’ll read one of my Christmas stories, as featured on the BBC.

Stay safe. 

Did Jesus exist? A rethink.

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Who determined the rules for the early Jesus cult? Jesus himself or the members of the cult? What does the evidence suggest? They all appear in documents written between 40 and 90 years after Jesus died. Either they survived from the moment the words left his lips, remembered accurately by generations of believers or they were included in the gospels by the cult communities that created them.

I’ve written before about how much of the Bible was written backwards (so to speak) and the gospel’s cult rules look likely to have been developed in just this way. The cult members had, by the time the gospels came to written, established these rules for their communities. They had shaped a Jesus that suited their purposes; it has long been recognised that the creators of Matthew’s, Luke’s and even John’s gospel took Mark’s account and amended it significantly. Their depiction of Jesus, his teaching and the resurrection are amended to reflect their particular beliefs and community rules. How do we know this?

Richard Carrier, the so-called mythicist (he actually says there’s a 1 in 3 possibility of the historicity of Jesus; figures as mythologised as Jesus rarely existed in fact) demonstrates how Mark’s gospel is an allegorical story based on Paul’s teaching. Mark created a well constructed narrative designed, literally, to flesh out the spiritual being that Paul imagined he’d seen in his visions. Using Jewish and pagan myths to structure it, he incorporates Paul’s visions and ‘revelations’ to create his Jesus story. To take one example, Paul relates in 1 Corinthians 11.23-25 how his celestial Christ told him in person (i.e. in his head) how his sacrifice of himself should be celebrated: with bread and wine. Mark turns this into an actual meal supposedly shared between Jesus and his early followers: the Last Supper.

Subsequent gospel writers took Mark’s allegory and amended it both to suit their needs and to correct what they perceived as Mark’s shortcomings. In the process they ‘fleshed out’ still further the figure at the centre of Paul’s (and others’) visions and Mark’s story based on them. Most significantly, they added increasingly elaborate resurrection appearances; it is significant Mark’s gospel has none, as if he knew Jesus’ resurrection wasn’t a physical event but a visionary one exactly as Paul describes.

It seems indisputable that the gospels were written this way (though there are, naturally, those who do dispute it.) None of the gospels rely on a hypothetical oral tradition, which, if it existed, would be extremely unreliable over 50 or so years (the time between Jesus’ supposed ministry and the writing of Matthew’s gospel), nor do they depend on the equally hypothetical Q. In any case, Q, if it existed, was a book of sayings, not a narrative account. Significantly, no copies of what must surely would have been a precious document have survived.

No, Mark made up the story of Jesus based on Paul’s visions (we know others had similar visions before Paul; he tells us so in 1 Corinthians 15.1-8). We know too that subsequent gospel writers built on Mark, adding what suited them, including their particular sect’s rules. What better endorsement of these rules than to have the object of their worship seeming to issue them himself? It’s highly unlikely he did anything of the sort. In 1991 the Jesus Seminar determined, controversially, that only about 20% of the words in the gospels could be attributed to an historical Jesus. All of the rest is made up and put retrospectively into his mouth. (The Seminar nevertheless concluded that Jesus existed.)

From the small amount of Jesus’ teaching that might be attributed to an historical Jesus, to the way the gospels were created, what can be known about a ‘real’ Jesus – what he said and did – grows increasingly small. All we are left with is a ghost of a figure. And isn’t this precisely what Paul claimed he and others had seen?

I’m rethinking my position and I’m coming to the conclusion, based on how the gospels were written, especially the way Mark allegorised Paul’s visions and teachings, that the likelihood of an historical Jesus is slim. Carrier has an abundance of evidence to support his proposal of a 1 in 3 chance that Jesus existed. Certainly the Jesus(es) of the gospels did not exist; they’re all made up. It now seems to me there’s no real, historical Jesus behind any of them. 
 

Love and Kindness

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I’m sometimes I asked what, given I don’t believe in Jesus, I do believe in. I always find this an odd question, presuming as it does that Christianity is really the only thing worth believing in. Implicit in it too is an acknowledgement that faith in the supernatural is irrational, and that sceptics are just as prone to irrationality as believers themselves: ‘you too have faith in any number of unprovable propositions, just like us misguided Christians!’ The question is often an attempt to show that sceptics are just as gullible as Christians.

Recently, Jimoeba said on his blog, The Common Atheist, ‘I believe passionately in nothing,’ meaning, I think, he doesn’t believe in any sort of supernatural nonsense. It set me thinking about what, in fact, I believe in. Do I still have some irrational, unfounded beliefs? Certainly I don’t believe – can’t believe – in Jesus and his support cast of mythical entities, who live in Heaven or just out of sight or wherever they’re meant to be. The same applies to their counterparts in other religions. It’s not that I hold this as a matter of faith; there simply isn’t the evidence to support the existence of gods, angels, demons, eternal beings, heaven and hell (as I discuss here and here.)

In any case, I prefer to know things rather than believe in them. Where there is evidence, there is no need for ‘belief’ or ‘faith’. Yet I still have a suspicion I believe in some things; things that seem intuitively right (never a good measure, I know, of what actually is true) but for which the evidence isn’t as substantial as I’d like. Things like love and kindness. I do believe in these, however cliched it may be to say, ‘I believe in love’. I do. I feel and, I hope, demonstrate love for my family, specially my children and grandchildren. Also to my friends and partners. It seems to me love matters a great deal. There are no doubt good evolutionary reason why we feel particularly strong affection for our offspring; taking care of them increases their – and the genes we share – chances of survival. But subjectively it is more than that. I believe it’s more than that anyway.

I find , try as I might, however, that I can’t extend that love to people I don’t know. Jesus’ command (not that I’m under any obligation to follow it) to love one’s neighbours and enemies is an impossibility, another example of his not knowing what he was talking about. It’s possible to feel compassion for those who suffer, or pity or sympathy, but these, while they’re perhaps components of love, are not completely love in any of its forms. So that’s why I believe in kindness too. ‘Be kind to your neighbour, to strangers and to those you encounter in daily life’ would have been, and is, a far more realistic expectation.

There are other things I believe in too – trying to steer people away from irrational belief in deities, saviours and magic books, obviously – and I’m not always consistent in my application of love and kindness. But I do try to be. I know they’re not absolutes, nor even universal values; they’re not delivered from on high because no values are, being entirely humanly derived, and they’re not practised by everyone either, not even aspired to by some. There’s no need to go around preaching about love and kindness, nor do they need a mythology created around them. Nevertheless, they’re what matter – to me, anyway.

I believe in them.