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

Blog348Angels

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.

Advertisements

The Incarnate Deity?

Blog347Nativity

Veiled in flesh the Godhead see; Hail th’incarnate Deity,

Pleased with us in flesh to dwell, Jesus our Emmanuel.

This, according to Charles Wesley’ hymn, ‘Hark! The Herald Angels Sing’, is what Christmas is all about: God manifesting himself on Earth as a child and subsequently a man.

What a disaster this whole idea is. The stories of Jesus’ birth do serious damage to two key elements of the Christian message:

First, they detract significantly from the good news the adult Jesus proclaimed and which survives to some extent in the synoptic gospels: the Kingdom of God was coming to the Earth very soon and people – Jewish people – should mend their ways accordingly. Instead, the nativity stories, which occur only in Matthew and Luke, are a reflection of what had happened to the faith by the time these gospels were written. The message had changed. It was less about what Jesus had to say and more about how he himself should be worshipped. He had, after all, as early Christians had started to believe, come from Heaven to save everyone from their sins.

Second, the nativity stories negate the resurrection. If a mortal Jesus rose from the dead, then we might conceivably have a miracle on our hands. But for an ‘incarnate deity’ to have accomplished the same thing – well, that’s no big deal. It’s what gods do all the time. The resurrection experiences, whatever they were, are invalidated by the gospel writers when, at the start of his story, they suggest Jesus is somehow divine. (John is even more emphatic; Jesus is the eternal Word made flesh.) So there’s nothing special about the resurrection, it’s just a god doing what gods do.

The nativity stories represent the confusion within early Christianity. Its adherents wanted it both ways, to have their cake and eat it. Maybe today’s believers can help us out of the dilemma: is it Jesus’ birth – his incarnation – that matters, or is it his death? Because it cannot be both. If Jesus was God in human form from the very beginning, then there’s nothing particularly special about his death and resurrection. Gods can’t really die, especially when none of them, including Yahweh, are alive in the first place.

According to the Scriptures (not)

Blog344Jonah

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

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

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

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

Let’s look at a couple:

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

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

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

Death’s Sting

supermancry-e1457347480705

Image copyright DC Comics

 

A long time friend of mine died suddenly a couple of days ago. Tom was in his comic shop, putting together orders, and, it appears, suffered a heart attack. He died there alone.

Death still has its sting – for both those who die (which is all of us) and those who are left behind. Paul’s rhetorical question, ‘Oh death, where is thy sting?’ (1 Corinthians 15:55) has always seemed to me to be particularly fatuous, not to mention deceitful. He said it, of course, in the belief that faith in his Christ meant life would resume on the other side of the grave. Even if this were so, dying would not be without its pain, and grieving not without deep sorrow.

And what about that word ‘sting’? The Greek Paul uses, ‘κέντρον’, means ‘a sharp point’ as if death is nothing more than a pin prick, a short sharp shock no more troublesome than an injection. In my experience, spending time with people who are dying, it is far from that. The body’s shutdown is often slow, relentless and unbearable. Morphine helps, not Jesus.

Mourning too is persistent; an emptiness and a profound sense of loss, as we often acknowledge when offering condolences. I takes time to subside, but never truly disappears. Every death, especially of loved ones, depletes us. As John Donne puts it:

Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.

God Nature, whose product we are, is insensible and indifferent to our suffering. It neither knows nor cares that we are self-aware, emotional beings who grieve and suffer. Death, which troubles us so much, is one of the engines of evolution. Once we have passed the stage at which we might viably reproduce we are programmed to decline and  die. We must make way for new creations, which is not, despite what Christians claim, in a brand new body on a new earth or in heaven. The new creations are those who follow us. Paul, as he was in so many respects, is wrong to say that because of the futile hope of resurrection, death has lost its sting and the grave its victory. Death will never lose its sting, its pain and finality.

Tom will be remembered by those to whom he mattered in life. This is the best we can do; this and living our lives to the full while we’re still here, loving others and being kind.

Farewell Tom, my friend.

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

Blog340JC&Peter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jesus’ dates with destiny

Blog338Cross

I hope you’ll allow me a little speculation…

Here are the few days leading up to Jesus supposed resurrection as related by the synoptic gospels:

Nisan 15: Wednesday sunset to Thursday sunset. The Day of Preparation when thousands of Paschal lambs are slaughtered ready for the following day’s (i.e. Thursday evening’s) Passover. Jesus instructs his disciples on the arrangements he has made for the feast.

Nisan 16: a. Thursday evening: Jesus celebrates Passover.

b. Thursday evening and night: Jesus is arrested and tried.

c. Friday 9.00: Jesus is put to the cross

d. Friday 15.00: Jesus dies.

Nisan 17: a. Friday ‘evening’: The start of the Sabbath: Jesus is buried by Joseph of Arimathea.

b. Friday evening to Saturday sunset: Jesus body lies in the sealed tomb.

Nisan 18: Saturday sunset to ‘early’ Sunday: The body remains in the tomb overnight(?) but by early next morning is missing.

John’s timeline, however, is markedly different. He says that Jesus is arrested on the Day of Preparation for Passover – that’s Nisan 15 according to the synoptics, which started at sunset on Wednesday (John 13.1; 19.14.) In John, therefore, Jesus does not eat a Passover meal with his disciples. He shares an ordinary supper with them on the Wednesday evening, when he washes their feet. Judas slips out to inform on him just as he does in the synoptic gospels, a day later (Mark 14.16-17; Matthew 26.19-20; Luke 22.33-45.) John significantly alters the timing of events though he retains Judas leaving, though from a different meal. In the fourth gospel, Jesus is arrested on the Wednesday evening, the start of Nisan 15. John mentions in 18.28 that the temple officials involved in the arrest have yet to eat their Passover meal; it still awaits on Thursday evening.

In John, Jesus is tried during the night of Nisan 15, or the early hours of Thursday. Eventually, at around noon on the Thursday he is nailed to the cross and dies rapidly (John 19.14, 31, 42). By the time everyone else is eating the Passover meal later that day – a meal Jesus is present for in the synoptic gospels – John’s Jesus is well and truly dead. He is placed in Joseph of Arimathea’s tomb at some point Thursday evening, either the end of Nisan 15 or the start of Nisan 16. He remains there during Friday and Saturday (the Sabbath) but by Sunday morning his body, according to the story, is missing.

It has been argued – given we don’t know the year Jesus was crucified – that John has his Passover falling on the Saturday, the Sabbath (John 19.31), as happened on occasion, and that therefore John’s ‘Day of Passover Preparation’ was not the Thursday – as it is in the synoptics – but the Friday. According to this line of reasoning, Jesus’ arrest in John was also on Thursday evening, at the start of Nisan 16 and his crucifixion was on Friday, as in the synoptic gospels. But the Day of Passover Preparation cannot be freely moved around to accommodate both versions of events; either it was on the Thursday (Nisan 15) as the synoptics record, or it was on the Friday (Nisan 16) as those who seek to locate John’s crucifixion on Friday argue. Either John is wrong about when the Day of Passover Preparation fell or his Jesus was crucified a day earlier than in the synoptics on their Day of Preparation, Nisan 15.

There is further circumstantial evidence for John’s crucifixion being on the Thursday. While the synoptics have the chief priests, scribes and elders witnessing the crucifixion for themselves, John doesn’t mention their presence. In his Thursday scenario, they are too busy preparing for that evening’s Passover, overseeing the ritual slaughter of thousand of animals, to attend the crucifixion. Similarly, the various activities after Jesus dies – the buying of linen and spices, the removal of the body from the cross, the preparation for burial, sundry visits to Pilate and the posting of guards (though John does not report the latter.) – do not entail any infringement of the Sabbath regulations.

Moreover, John has Jesus in the tomb for three days and nights, more or less; the supposed resurrection does indeed occur ‘after three days’ as Jesus is made to predict numerous times (19 in total.)

Nisan 16: Jesus is buried at the start of Nisan 16 (our Thursday evening),

Nisan 17: Jesus remains in the tomb throughout Nisan 17; 6pm Friday to 6pm Saturday.

Nisan 18: 6pm Saturday to the early hours of our Sunday. He remains in the tomb until some indeterminate point, either before dawn (according to John) or just after (the synoptics.)

As well as a resurrection ‘on the third day’, John’s version of events provides an added bonus. By having his crucifixion on the Day of Passover Preparation, John  is able to draw an analogy between the slaughter of the sacrificial lambs and his ‘Lamb of God’ who, in his death, replaces them as an atonement offering.

I don’t know; maybe I’ve got this all wrong. There’s a problem, I concede, with John 19.30 which implies Jesus is on the cross on Friday (though by John 19.42, when Jesus is buried, it looks like the narrative has reverted to the day before the Sabbath; Friday day time.)

The effort to harmonise the two different timelines, that of the synoptics and that of John, involves having two different Days of Passover Preparation (Thursday and Friday) and indeed, two Passovers (Friday and Saturday). Does this seem likely to you? Two lots of lambs to be slaughtered and two celebrations on two consecutive days – I mean, these people weren’t made of money! Isn’t it far more likely there was one Day of Preparation and one Passover? If so, who is right about when they fell? John or the synoptic writers? They both can’t be. Whether apologists like it or not, isn’t it more likely that the fourth gospel has Jesus crucified on the same Day of Preparation that the synoptics mention (the Thursday), while in the synoptics – all based, let’s remember, on Mark’s account – he dies on the Friday after the Passover meal as they relate? It makes more sense of the conflicting timelines than attempting to mash them both together when they won’t. One or other, John or the synoptics, got it wrong about the day Jesus died; perhaps both did.

One thing’s for sure, what follows is pure unadulterated myth.

What if… the resurrection really happened?

Smith

The Christian faith rests entirely on the resurrection of Jesus. As Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15.17 & 19:

…If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost. If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.

Of course neither Jesus nor Paul’s invention, the Christ, were raised from the dead; those encounters with him, described in the gospels are, like Paul’s, visions and sensations of his presence (later ‘the Holy Spirit’) embroidered in the 40 or more years between when they occurred and when they were recorded.

Let’s though, suppose that Jesus really did rise from the dead and work backwards from there. What difference did it make? More specifically, what does the bible say were the results and consequences of Jesus being raised?

The Coming of the Kingdom

According to the New Testament (Matthew 25.34; Romans 15.12; Revelation 20.4-6), the resurrection was a clear sign that Yahweh’s Kingdom was finally arriving on Earth.

Was God’s wonderful reign established here on Earth back in the first century? Were all wrongs righted, the social order inverted, and war and suffering abolished (Mark 10.31; Matt 5.2-11; Rev 21.4)? New Testament writers believed that following the resurrection, all of this would be happening –

in reality, none of it happened; not then and not since.

The Resurrection of the Dead

Did Jesus’ resurrection result in even more people rising from the dead? Paul said it would; he said Jesus was the ‘first fruits’, meaning the first of many, with others following him in being raised from the dead (1 Corinthians 15.20-21). Has any ordinary person – anybody at all – ever returned from the dead, long after they passed away? Not one; never mind the hundreds or thousands Paul and other early cultists had in mind. No Pope, no shining example of Christian piety, no activist or worker in the Lord’s vineyard has ever been resurrected during Christianity’s entire history. The dead have always remained stubbornly dead.

So no, this didn’t happen either.

After-life in Heaven

Did the resurrection result in people going to heaven after they died? This seems to be the view held by many Christians today. Unfortunately, it is not what the New Testament offers. Its writers believed that the Kingdom of Heaven would be coming to Earth in their very near future, not that ordinary mortals would invade God’s home post-mortem. Granted there are traces of this view emerging in the later books of the New Testament (given the failure of earlier predictions about the Kingdom coming to the Earth), but it is not what the founders of Christianity believed and hoped for.

In any case, who has ever died, again from the billions who have lived, and gone to heaven? No-one. Predictably, Christians now say that this transition won’t happen until the final judgement, scheduled for some unspecified time in the future (looks like God is as limited by time as we are.) That’s Christianity for you: always winter but never Christmas, everything in an ever-distant future.

No-one has gone to heaven as a result of the resurrection and no-one ever will.

New Creatures

Did the resurrection result in those who believed becoming ‘new creatures’? Paul said it would (2 Corinthians 5.17). He also said members of the new cult would be loving, forgiving and non-judgemental (1 Cor 5.12 & 13.14). There’s no evidence, from his letters, that they were, nor is there evidence from the long and often cruel history of the church. Christians today don’t always radiate loving-kindness either. Those who are caring and gentle before they become Christians remain so; those who are self-gratifying, vindictive or exploitative find a new context in which to be so. As I’ve said before, religion is like excess alcohol; it exaggerates the essential characteristics of a person, for good or for bad.

What it doesn’t do is make shiny ‘new creatures’.

So, what conclusions can we draw from this? Perhaps that nothing went to plan in post-resurrection Christianity. The promised results all failed to materialise. If the effects of the resurrection were and are not what they should have been, what does this say about their supposed cause?

If a storm is forecast and yet, when the time comes, there is no rain, wind or damage, wouldn’t we say that there was no storm?

If a woman said she was pregnant but during the ensuing nine months there was no physical evidence of pregnancy and ultimately no baby, wouldn’t we say she wasn’t pregnant at all?

If God’s Kingdom on Earth, brand new creatures, the resurrection of ordinary believers, the final judgement and eternal life in heaven failed to materialise, wouldn’t we say there can have been no resurrection? The supposed causal event of all these non-effects really can’t have happened. Jesus died and like all dead people stayed dead. The visions, dreams and imaginings of his early followers gave rise to a cult in his name, one that, ultimately failed on all levels to deliver what it promised.

There was no resurrection.