The Curious Case of the False News Nativity

Matthew4

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.

Advertisements

Some Pig: Why God’s laws are not written on our hearts

Morals

According to Christians, everyone of us knows the right way to behave because God has written his laws in our ‘hearts’. We don’t always bother to consult what he’s written there, however, because we prefer to do our own thing, which is when our consciences start to bother us about our wicked ways. Here’s how Paul put in Romans 2.15:

Gentiles show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them.

There’s no evidence that this is how it works, of course; Paul never cared much for evidence nor even for making sense. We know that, provided we are not born with psychopathic tendencies, we learn values, morals and how to relate to others from care-givers in our early lives. They teach us to share (or not) and how we should treat other people, and while it’s true we do seem to be born with a sense of empathy – watch a young child respond to the distress of another – this needs to be cultivated and nurtured. A knowledge of the 613, frequently absurd stipulations of the Old Covenant (which is what Paul is referring to) is demonstrably not genetic; we do not have an innate or instinctive understanding of God’s requirements. Psychologists point to the fact that it is only when she is three that a child learns that stealing is wrong; she is not born knowing it.

All of which is a far cry from ‘God’s law being written in (our) hearts’. Even if Paul meant we have a sort of general, non-specific understanding of how we ought to behave – though this is not what he actually says – there is no evidence this has been planted in us by a supernatural being. Certainly not one that thinks slavery is okay and whose prohibition against killing doesn’t extend to tribes beyond one’s own.

The Christian approach to morality puts me in mind of Charlotte’s Web. In that great children’s book, Charlotte the spider adds messages to the webs she spins to help save her friend, Wilbur the pig, from slaughter. When the gullible humans in the story see ‘Some Pig’, ‘Radiant’, ‘Amazing’ and ‘Humble’ written in the webs, they inexplicably give the credit, not to Charlotte, but to Wilbur. No-one, either in the book itself nor in reviews, comments on the fact that it is not Wilbur who has these qualities, despite what the messages say, but the creature who made them (an anomaly I’m sure E. B. White was aware of when he wrote the book.)

If I might interpret Charlotte’s Web allegorically, we humans are Charlotte, while Wilbur, on whom everyone seems focused, is God. It is we who have developed moral codes throughout our existence, the latest versions of which our children learn from us, and attempt to follow (or not). Meanwhile, the likes of Paul and contemporary Christians refuse to give us one iota of credit. Instead, they insist, the credit goes to their god; a being nowhere near as pleasant as Wilbur, though he’s every bit as fictional – another of our creations, just like those moral codes we invented.

 

To clanging cymbals everywhere

Massacre

If you’ve ever engaged one of God’s gentle people™ in discussion about one of their pet topics – the infallibility of scripture, evidence for the resurrection, the ‘abomination’ that is homosexuality or some other damn thing – you’ll know that, sooner or later, they turn nasty. They resort to name-calling and personal attacks; they tell you the reason you’re arguing against them is because you just want to wallow in your own sin – and, boy, are you going to suffer when it comes to judgement day.

Fellow-blogger, Bruce Gerencser has recently experienced this kind of thing from some twerp self-appointed ‘preacher of God’s word’ called T.C. Howitt, over on the Reasonable Doubt blog. I’ve been subjected to it innumerable times too. Eventually, you retreat; not because you’ve lost the argument or don’t have anything reasonable left to say but because there is only so much battering you can take. Then, as Bruce says, the bible thumper declares victory; the foe is vanquished – God’s word prevails! Even supposing this to be true, it is a Pyrrhic victory; the defence of doctrine is at the expense of others’ well-being and is achieved only by hurting them, usually intentionally so.

We shouldn’t be surprised by this of course; it has been the church’s way since the very beginning, from Paul’s tantrum about other evangelists he wished would accidentally castrate themselves (Galatians 5.12) to the massacre of native Americans by those passing on Jesus’ good news in the 16th century, right through to present day ‘hate’ preachers like Steven Anderson and Franklin Graham. Christianity is, and always has been, a nasty, bullying religion that cares only about its own preservation, never other people.

Those who proselytise on its behalf might care to read one of Paul’s better bits of self-promotion (1 Corinthians 13.1-2) which, if it is part of God’s infallible Word™, applies to those Christians today who have nothing better to do than hang around social media:

If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.

We might add that if the only way you can win your argument is by demolishing your opponent psychologically, you demonstrate that you are without love, making you in the eyes of ‘men’ and your own God, worth precisely nothing.

How the bible gets almost everything wrong: volume 3

Paul4

So there we have it. The bible is historically, scientifically, medically, morally, and psychologically inaccurate. It is a muddle of contradiction and confusion, written by pre-scientific, bronze-age tribesmen and religious zealots who made guesses about how the world worked. In almost every respect they got it wrong.

So what does this mean for the central premise of the book, its claim that the Creator of the universe, the Father of mankind speaks through it? Why should we suppose that when it gets everything else wrong, it manages to get this right?

We shouldn’t. The bible’s knowledge of God comes from the same source as the rest of its information: the wild imaginings of men who knew no better. The bible itself tell us so, many times. By its own admission, it is a catalogue of dreams, visions and inner ‘revelations’. In the New Testament alone there are at least twenty ‘meaningful’ fantasies of this sort, including the entirety of its final book, the aptly named ‘Revelation of St John’. The bible comes from an era when dreams and other subjective internal experiences were widely regarded to have significance as messages – revelations – from the gods, not the routine and not-so-routine workings of the human mind we now know them to be. Every era, before the scientific, regarded them in this way.

So Paul interpreted his psychotic episodes, depicted as a disembodied voice and bright light in Acts but far more dreamlike and hallucinatory in Paul’s own descriptions, as experiences of the risen Jesus himself (1 Corinthians 9.1 & Galatians 1.11-12) and of heaven (2 Corinthians 12.1-4). From these he built up all of his fanciful ideas of ‘the Christ’, not one of them based on anything demonstrable or real. All of them mere notions in his head, notions that others were all to willing to accept as the words of a god. After all, wasn’t that how the Almighty always communicated with mere mortals?

Still today people surrender to these ‘revelations’; Paul’s theology built on out-of-body experiences, the disciples’ grief-induced visions, John’s hallucinogenic ‘bad trip’. These are the foundation of Christianity as we have it, providing all we know of God, Christ and salvation, and all of them without any basis in reality. Some believers even claim to have the same sort of ‘revelations’ themselves; God speaking to them, Christ bathing them in light, visions of Heaven. All of these, again, entirely within their heads and no more real than the occasional appearances of my long dead grandfather in my own dreams. However much Christians might insist on a rational basis for their beliefs, it is an inescapable fact that the faith has its origins in ancient people’s dreams and hallucinations. Rationalising after the fact doesn’t alter this.

I don’t know about you, but I’m not interested in basing my life on others’ emotionally-induced inner visions, whether those of a Paul, or a Joseph Smith or a contemporary whack-job. I don’t want to learn about the world and life from people whose understanding and knowledge derive from their sub-conscious and hallucinatory fantasy life. Give me science any day, with its attempts to minimise subjective, human biases from its exploration of how things are. Give me its discoveries that have enhanced life, however imperfectly, in the here and now. Above all, give me honest rationality over sub-conscious imaginings and psychoses.

I have no interest in a god, or a saviour, constructed from other people’s dreams, visions or hallucinations, even, or especially, when they’re recorded in that most unreliable of sources, the bible.

 

Making Excuses for Jesus

Hokum2

Excuse 3. When Jesus said ‘Kingdom of God’ what he really meant was ‘heaven’.

According to many Christians, the Kingdom of God is a supernatural realm where those whom Jesus has redeemed are going to go when they die. This kingdom is not, despite what Jesus said, coming to the Earth; believers are going to it, and it’s called heaven.

This is probably the most prominent view among Christians today and it couldn’t be more wrong. As we’ve established, Jesus says repeatedly and consistently that the Kingdom is coming here, to the earth. As well as all of his assurances (cited in earlier posts), he taught his followers to pray to God that ‘thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as in heaven’ (Matt 6.10), a petition Christians affirm whenever they repeat ‘the Lord’s prayer’.

Nowhere does Jesus promise his followers that they will spend eternity in heaven with God. Neither does Paul, nor any of the New Testament writers. Heaven, according to the bible, is God’s abode beyond the clouds; it is not a theme park open for visitors or long term guests. True, Paul believed that deceased souls would enter the presence of Christ to be kept safe until the Kingdom’s arrival, at which point they would be housed in new, spiritual bodies (1 Corinthians 15:35-58; 1 Thessalonians 4.13-18). These new bodies would not be for life in heaven, however, but for a resurrected existence here on earth, once the Kingdom had been established.

Amazingly, Paul expected people to believe this appalling drivel. Later Christians evidently couldn’t, and so invented the idea that they would be going to Heaven permanently post-mortem. John 14.3, which makes Jesus say he’s going to prepare a place for his disciples ‘in his father’s house’, might be an early sign of this wishful thinking. On the other hand it might mean something else altogether – as usual Jesus is made to speak in obtuse riddles.

Whichever it is, Christians are not promised an existence in heaven when they die. The only offer is of a place in God’s Kingdom on Earth, which both Jesus and Paul thought was coming very soon.

 

Excuse 4. When Jesus said ‘Kingdom of God’ what he really meant was ‘an internal kingdom of the heart’.

The Kingdom of God, then, must be, as a commenter on Answers in Genesis recently assured me, ‘an internal kingdom of the heart’. But you’d be hard pushed to find this bit of fluff in the bible. The closest it comes to saying any such thing is in Luke 17.20-21 where Jesus announces that the Kingdom of God is ‘entos hymon,’ a phrase sometimes rendered as ‘within you’ but which is more accurately translated ‘among you’. It is not an assurance that the Kingdom of God is some sort of silopsistic comfort blanket for believers in the far-flung future. It is yet more evidence that Jesus (or his script-writers) regarded the Kingdom as imminent in his and their own immediate context: first century Palestine. 

That’s four excuses – four explanations that what Jesus really meant was what today’s Christians want him to have meant. It’s tough facing up to the reality that God’s Son – God himself according to some Christians – was so mistaken, so disastrously wrong. But he was.

So naturally, more excuses are needed…

 

Making Excuses for Jesus

Excuse 2. When Jesus said ‘Kingdom of God’ what he really meant was ‘the church’.

Kingdom

So if not the transfiguration, then what? Christians can’t accept that Jesus was wrong in all he prophesied, and must invent some other explanation. How about the church – the body of believers who saw, and still see, Jesus as their saviour? The church must be the Kingdom! Yes, that’s it surely.

But then they’re left to explain why the church, even in its early days, bore no resemblance to what Jesus said the Kingdom would look like. Where was the Son of Man descending through the clouds? The hosts of angels in full view of ‘the tribes of the Earth’? The disciples judging and ruling the twelve tribes of Israel (Matt 19.28)? The last becoming first and the first last? The meek inheriting the Earth? The righteous being rewarded for their good deeds, while the unrighteous are sent to outer darkness?

Even if we were to overlook the absence of these characteristics, all of which Jesus predicted would define the Kingdom, then isn’t the-church-as-Kingdom just a tiny bit, well… disappointing? It doesn’t embody either any of the conditions of the Kingdom that the Old Testament prophets promised it would (Micah 4.1-7 & Isaiah 11.6): nations continue to wage war, the lamb and the wolf don’t co-exist peacefully and God singularly fails to rule the earth from Mount Zion.

Instead, the church is all too human, riven with conflict and division. Despite the whitewash given to it by the author of Acts, Paul’s letters – 1 & 2 Corinthians, Romans and Galatians in particular – serve as a permanent reminder of the dispute and strife that have characterised it since its earliest days. It has also a shameful history of persecuting those with whom it disagrees and produces its fair share of criminals and abusers. Today, it is split into 45,000 different factions and, according to some of its own, is awash with ‘false doctrine’.

One thing it is good at – the very thing Paul insists it shouldn’t be (1 Corinthians 5.12) – is judging the rest of us.

The Kingdom of God it is not.

How to argue like a Christian

Argue

If you’ve ever tried discussing matters of faith with a True Believer™, you’ll know how difficult it can be; like wrestling with a jellyfish – and just about as poisonous.

So here’s a guide for the unwary; 10 of their favourite lines (5 this time, 5 next), all of which I’ve experienced more times than I care to remember.

“You don’t know your Bible!”

Point out that Jesus’ ‘good news’ was nothing like Paul’s or that they were both wrong about the Kingdom arriving in the first century and this old canard gets trotted out. Even if you quote chapter and verse, a clear indication you do know the Bible, they still produce it. What they mean is ‘how dare you quote the bits of the Bible we true believers don’t like and prefer not to acknowledge.’

“You’re quoting out of context.”

I’ve posted about this one before. Seemingly as a sceptic you have no discernment when it comes to selecting Bible verses. How ever many you reference – one or a hundred – they will tell you it’s not enough; that you’ve not, somehow, caught the true meaning of what the Bible is saying, which is, naturally, what they say it means. Unsurprisingly. quoting isolated verses is something the Righteous themselves like to do all the time…

“The bible says…”

It doesn’t matter what point you make, this will appear somewhere in the Christian’s response, followed, of course, by some random verse from the book in question. Christians seem to regard it as the ultimate clincher, the way to silence any opponent, as if quoting the bible to those who recognise neither its credibility nor its authority persuades anyone of anything.

“You’ve no right to criticise Christianity when you can’t ‘prove’ how something came from nothing/how life arose/evolution.”

It’s unlikely anyone can explain these biggies in 140 characters or a Facebook comment, but we can direct those issuing the challenge to scientific works that offer viable theories soundly based on the evidence available. Needless to say our Christian smart-Alec is unlikely to read them, claiming instead that one’s inability to comprehensively explain the Big Bang or evolution ‘proves’ it must have been – watch the sleight of hand here – YHWH.

“‘People like you’ only want to wallow in your own sin (which is why you won’t let me have my own way).”

Now I like to wallow as much as the next man, but outside the Christian bubble, ‘sin’ is a fairly meaningless concept, designed only to induce guilt in others. Which means the point of this unpleasant finger pointing is to side-step any discussion and to dismiss whatever point you might want to make. What this retort really means is ‘you have an ulterior motive for saying what you’re saying and, in any case, your inherently evil nature doesn’t entitle you to have an opinion.’

More next time…