Making Excuses for Jesus

jesus-jw

Excuse 5. When Jesus said the ‘Kingdom of God is coming soon’, what he meant to add was ‘but only in heaven and then in 1874. Or 1878. 1914? Er… 1975. After 2017?’

So say the Jehovah’s Witnesses. In 1897 they claimed that Jesus had started on his comeback tour in 1874:

Our Lord, the appointed King, is now present since October 1874, A.D., according to the testimony of the prophets, to those who have ears to hear it: and the formal inauguration of his kingly office dates from Apr 1878, A.D. Studies in Scriptures Series IV (p.621)

and

The year A.D. 1878 … clearly marks the time for the actual assuming of power as King of kings, by our present, spiritual, invisible Lord… The Time is At Hand (1911 ed) p.239

When there was no sign this had happened – and goodness knows what sort of sign there could possibly be – the JWs changed their minds again and said the real date for the start of the ‘full’ kingdom was to be 1914:

In view of this strong Bible evidence concerning the Times of the Gentiles, we consider it an established truth that the final end of the kingdoms of this world, and the full establishment of the Kingdom of God, will be accomplished near the end of A.D.1914. Studies in the Scriptures Series 2: The Time is at Hand (1889 ed) p.99

and

October, 1914, will witness the full end of Babylon, “as a great millstone cast into the sea,” utterly destroyed as a system. Watch Tower (Jun 15 1911) p.190

Alas, over a century later there’s no sign of the Kingdom’s ‘full establishment’, while the old, corrupt system (Babylon) carries on as normal. So, after another change of heart, and a quick, futile stab at 1975 as the right date, Jehovah’s Witnesses came up with a revised plan. Here’s how it looks:

Jesus will return while the generation alive in 1914 is still around, when he will finally get the Kingdom underway. This is the ‘generation’ to which he refers in his prophecies in the bible; his return and the Kingdom coming to the earth will definitely happen while the 1914 generation  is still alive.

But hang on! A person born in 1914 – and there are some still around – is now 103, while those who were already adults in 1914 are long dead. In other words, the 1914 generation has almost gone and there’s still no sign of Jesus or his Kingdom. Either he’s going to return real soon, before the last of the 1914 generation depart, or he’s going to miss the deadline yet again (Guess which it’s going to be).

But worry not, Jehovah’s Witnesses have this one covered too! When Jesus referred to ‘this generation’ he didn’t just mean one generation, but to the generation that ‘overlaps’ with that generation. There’s nothing biblical about ‘overlapping generations’, of course. Jesus didn’t say, ‘the Kingdom will come while this generation and those that overlap with it are still alive,’ but like mainstream Christians, Jehovah’s Witnesses need to give Jesus and themselves an excuse if they’re to avoid admitting that he and they have got it wrong.

So, an overlapping generation would be one like my own, whose grandparents were children in 1914. But we can extend this – and we can be sure JWs will once Jesus fails to return on time – because, using the same ‘reasoning’, my grandchildren’s generation ‘overlaps’ with my grandparents’ through me. My grandchildren’s grandchildren too will be connected with all previous generations, including that from 1914, because of those who have preceded them… and on and on, ad infinitum. In fact, Jesus could come back at any time in the future so long as someone is alive who can trace their ancestry back to 1914.

But he’s not going to. He wasn’t talking about a ‘generation’ almost 2000 years after he lived. He was certain the Kingdom of God was coming to his time and his people. All of these convoluted and ultimately unconvincing explanations of what he ‘really’ meant when he preached an imminent heavenly Kingdom on earth simply won’t do. While mainstream Christians mock Jehovah’s Witnesses for their silly conjecturing about Jesus’ return, they share the belief Jesus is coming back. Most won’t venture a date (though there have been plenty who have) because, they will tell you, Jesus also said ‘no-one knows the precise day or hour’ when the Son of Man and the Kingdom will appear (Mark 13.32). Nevertheless, they remain certain that Jesus will return: this year, next year, sometime… any time other than that which he actually predicted.

While evangelical Christians and others insist that the bible, where all Jesus’ failed prophecies appear, is the literal and infallible word of God, they refuse to take literally his pronouncements about the coming of the Kingdom. While he might have said he didn’t know exactly when it would arrive, he was certain it would be while his own generation lived. As he is made to say in Matthew 16.28, ‘some who are standing here will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom’.

All of which is a problem for Christians: if these predictions are not to be ignored, then they must be interpreted, explained and, eventually, explained away. The last thing believers want to do is accept them for what they are; the demonstration of Jesus’ failure. The Kingdom didn’t arrive when he said it would and, given how far it is past its sell-by date, it’s certainly won’t be now.

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Making excuses for Jesus


Excuse 1. When he said ‘Kingdom of God’, what Jesus really meant was ‘transfiguration’.

Hokum

However it might seem, Jesus’ mission didn’t fail! Absolutely not. Because after he promised those standing in front of him would see God’s Kingdom come in power and glory, the gospels relate how some of the disciples saw Jesus having a friendly chat with Moses and Elijah (Mark 9.1-8 etc). So, say his apologists, this was what he was really referring to; his being visited by two of Judaism’s great figures, on day release from Heaven or having travelled through time or, more probably, having being planted in a story that is pure fabrication. Whichever, this ‘transfiguration’ is regularly hauled out as ‘evidence’ that those standing with Jesus did indeed see him in his Kingdom. (Here, here and here, for example.)

Pastor Bob Deffinbaugh, for example, puts it like this:

Jesus then promised His disciples that some of them would see the “kingdom of God” before they died: “I tell you the truth, some who are standing here will not taste death before they see the kingdom of God (Luke 9.27). While there are numerous explanations as to what Jesus’ words here mean, the simplest explanation, especially in the context, is that Jesus was foretelling the transfiguration which was to come within a week’s time.

But this cannot be ‘the simplest explanation’ because it doesn’t fit any of what Jesus said the Kingdom would be like. Here’s his description as it appears in Matthew 24.29-31 & 34 (emphasis added):

Immediately after the suffering of those days the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light; the stars will fall from heaven, and the powers of heaven will be shaken. Then the sign of the Son of Man will appear in heaven, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory. And he will send out his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other… Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place.

The transfiguration bears no relation to any of this, nor to his other predictions about what the Kingdom would be like – the meek inheriting the Earth, the last becoming first and so on – once it was established. The Kingdom of God as Jesus imagined it (and he did imagine it) was to be a far grander affair than a symbolic encounter ‘witnessed’ by a few disciples. It was to be seen by the entire world and would have far-reaching and long-lasting consequences. The transfiguration, no matter how much Jesus’ raiment is made to shine, simply doesn’t qualify. It can’t possibly be, then, what Jesus had in mind when he predicted the end of the age and God’s rule coming to the Earth. There is a fundamental dishonesty in claiming that it is.

Better luck next, Christians…

The disciples would not have died for a lie (part two)

Rule

As we have seen, the available evidence does not support the idea that Jesus’ original followers subscribed to a miraculous physical resurrection. It suggests instead that their beliefs centred on the promises Jesus had made about returning from heaven as ‘the Son of Man’ to establish God’s Kingdom on Earth, which they would then rule with him.

Elements of this promise survive in the gospels as we have them, even if there are, in all four, obvious concessions to Paul’s Christ figure; the gospels were, after all, written after Paul’s version of Christianity had begun to take hold. Significantly, the promise of the triumphant appearance of the Son of Man ‘within this generation’ is present in Q, the source of many of the sayings common to both Matthew and Luke’s gospels that they didn’t get from Mark. It’s also there in the sources (L and M) peculiar to each of the gospels. Obviously L, M and Q pre-date the gospels that later made use of them. Scholars think Q could have been written as early as 40CE, a few years after Jesus’ death, with some sayings earlier than that. It pre-dates Paul too and reflects a tradition that has nothing to do with him or his convoluted theology.

Q, in fact, has no sayings attributed to the resurrected Jesus, nor anything from his trial, the crucifixion or resurrection.1 How can that be? Were they not important to the early believers who compiled it? The answer can only be, no, they weren’t. For the creators of Q what mattered was what Jesus said – his ethical teaching and his promise to return as the Son of Man, within his hearers’ lifetime, to inaugurate the Kingdom of God on Earth in which the disciples would reign alongside him (Matthew 19:28). To be part of this Kingdom, people had to become righteous, not have it gifted to them (Matthew 5.20 & 48). This was the ‘good news’ for Jesus’ earliest followers, the gospel as it is preserved in the Q source.2 The lie that the disciples were to rule the world with Jesus inspired them to spread the news of the coming Kingdom; they demonstrate little interest in a reanimated dead man or a magical salvation formula.

So, did the disciples die for their faith in the Risen Jesus? Highly unlikely. They don’t seem, despite the later stories in which they feature, to attach any importance, at least in Q, to visions of a resurrected god-man.

How did they die, then? The simple answer is that, for most of them, we don’t know. They could have met their end when the original church community in Jerusalem was annihilated by the Romans in 70CE. The Romans didn’t particularly care what a minority group of fanatics believed – they were rebellious Jews who needed to be taught a lesson.

If not slaughtered by Romans in their capture of Jerusalem, then perhaps the disciples died for their seditious belief in the imminent arrival of the Kingdom of God, just as Jesus had before them. The Bible records the deaths of only two of them: Judas, who appears to have committed suicide using two different methods depending on which account you believe (Matthew 27:5-8 or Acts 1:18-19), and James, brother of John, who, according to Acts 12.1-2 was executed by Herod Agrippa 1. By the time Acts was written, however, somewhere between 80-90CE, the beliefs of the original followers had been swallowed up by Paul’s alternate version of the faith; we have no way of knowing how accurate the report of James’ death is. It’s hard to believe it was merely because he thought an old pal had risen from the dead. It is hard to believe this of any of them. For the other disciples there are only traditional accounts of how they died ‘for their faith’ with nothing to corroborate these legends.

It is quite possible Jesus’ original followers died for reasons unconnected with their outlandish beliefs in an imminent supernatural kingdom. They could just as easily have died of natural causes. One thing seems probable – they did not die because they believed in a resurrected Messiah. It’s not that they didn’t believe in a physical resurrection – they did – but they were convinced it would only happen with the arrival of God’s Kingdom on Earth, as prophesied in Daniel 12.1-4.

That it had already happened to their former leader did not figure in their beliefs, their writing or even their thinking.

 

 

1 Bart D. Ehrman, Jesus Before the Gospels, p279-280

2 ‘But for Q, Jesus was indeed principally remembered as a teacher of great wisdom and high moral demands, as an apocalyptic prophet anticipating the imminent end of the age, and one whose miraculous activities showed that the day of judgement was soon to come. For the author of Q, Jesus’ teachings provided the goal of the Christian life. Followers of Jesus are those who adhere to his directives for how to live, in anticipation of the coming kingdom of God.’ Bart. D. Ehrman, Jesus Before the Gospels, p280

Updated to include link to Matthew Ferguson’s celsus blog.

 

 

 

The disciples would not have died for a lie (part one)

SonOfMan

The disciples would not have died for a lie, or so Christians like to argue.

Would they not?

Fanatics today do and it is more than likely the disciples believed their lie was true, if indeed they died for it at all. There’s not much evidence that they did. But if they did, maybe the lie they believed to be true was not the one today’s Christians think it was.

There is no evidence anywhere that Jesus’ original followers were martyred because of their faith in a physically resurrected Jesus – for their beliefs, maybe, but not necessarily because they believed Jesus had returned in bodily form from the dead. On the contrary, the evidence suggests that they holed up in Jerusalem to await his return through the clouds as the Son of Man, with a phalanx of hostile angels by his side (Heaven was, after all, just on the other side of those clouds). This was the crux of their beliefs.

How do we know?

There was significant tension between the disciples and Paul, which Paul himself relates, not only because he was convinced his message should be taken to the Gentiles but because of the very nature of that message. Paul and the disciples meant different things by ‘the gospel’. Paul’s irritation that others were preaching a different gospel is apparent in 2 Corinthians 11 & 12 where he calls the original disciples, ‘false apostles, deceitful workers, disguising themselves as apostles of Christ’ and bitterly refers to them as ‘the most eminent apostles’. He is arrogant enough to suppose, and to proclaim, that he has it right and they are wrong.

Paul’s good news was about the resurrected Christ of his visions, who magically made those who put their faith in him righteous in God’s eyes. As he puts it in 2 Corinthians 5:21, ‘God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.’ Paul also believed this supernatural being would soon descend from the skies when he would give believers new bodies (Philippians 3.20) but this is a very different figure, and agenda, from the Jesus known to the disciples.

What then of Paul’s insistence, in 1 Corinthians 15.5 (written circa 55CE), that ‘the Twelve’ experienced the Risen Christ in much the same way he did? Firstly, of course, we have only Paul’s word for this. We have no first-hand corroboration (just the opposite in fact) and Paul had a vested interest in showing how significant his own experiences were. What better way to do so than by claiming Jesus’ original followers had had the same sort of hallucinations? Secondly, we don’t know what these ‘visions’, if they had them, meant to the disciples. Their belief would undoubtedly have been in a physical, bodily resurrection (cf: Daniel 2.12; Matthew 27.52), not in the beam-of-light manifestation of hallucination; this was much more Paul’s thing. Perhaps this is why any words uttered by vision-Jesus (for surely he would have spoken to his old chums) were not considered significant enough to be included in the earliest written record, ‘Q’.

The fully-realised resurrection appearances found in the gospels, then, in which Jesus declaims ‘blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed’ and ‘go and make disciples of all nations,’ are very clearly later developments, based, not on Q but on the visions suffered by Paul and others of influence and ‘written back’ into the gospel accounts.

Despite claiming that the Twelve experienced the Risen Christ in much the same way he did, Paul is critical of the disciples for preaching a different gospel, a different Jesus even, from the magical salvation-formula gospel he expounds. So what did the disciples believe – what was this other gospel that Paul disparaged so much?

We’ll see next time.

 

 

Christians’ Favourite Delusions 31: The first Christians wouldn’t have been prepared to die for a lie.

VisionOkay, so if Jesus didn’t rise from the dead, what caused Christianity to spread the way it did? Or, as Christians like to put it, why would early Christians be prepared to die for something that didn’t happen? For the same reason they were ready to die for things that did happen; they were religious fanatics and people have died for a lot less. In any case, we have little evidence the earliest Christians did die prematurely for their faith, but they had plenty of reasons, other than a resurrection that didn’t happen, to give their lives to the cause:

1. Many of them seemed to think that, after his death, they’d had a vision of their leader. This was persuasive enough for the Pharisee Paul to become a follower ‘unto death’ – so why not for others? Still today, believers claim they’ve seen Jesus – it’s often how new cults get started – and those who lived in the first century were even more fanatical and superstitious. According to the gospels they –

  • believed in reincarnation (Jesus and John the Baptist are taken to be reincarnated versions of long dead prophets in Mark 6.14-15 and Matthew 16.14);
  • thought that the dead could return to life (Mark 6.16; Matthew 27.52) and
  • accepted that angels walked the Earth performing miracles (John 5.4).

It’s not much of step for them to have believed that the visions they were having or hearing about were of a resurrected Jesus. It doesn’t matter they weren’t; it was enough that early converts believed they were.

2. Jesus promised his original disciples and hangers-on that the Kingdom of God on earth was not far off. It would happen, he promised, in their lifetime; the ‘Son of Man’ would come down from heaven through the clouds with a battalion of angels and would take charge of the Earth on God’s behalf (Matthew 16:27-28; Matthew 24:27, 30-31, 34; Luke 21:27-28, 33-34). It’s not clear whether Jesus regarded himself as this mythical figure from the book of Daniel but nonetheless Jesus’ first followers were convinced the end was nigh – God was soon to intervene in history to transform the Earth, remodelling it in their favour (Matthew 5.5-12). They were privileged to have this information direct from Jesus himself – this was his Good News, his gospel – and they set about making it known. Even Paul, who changed the Jesus he’d never met into a cosmic super-hero, believed this (1 Corinthians 15:23-26). A brave new world was a cause worth living for and, if necessary, dying for.

3. The very first Jesus-followers, the disciples, believed that when all of this happened – when God’s Kingdom was on the Earth as it was in Heaven – they would rule it with him. Hadn’t Jesus himself told them that they would? He surely had – it’s recorded in Luke 22:28-30. So not only was God going to renew the Earth and its political systems, he was going to put them in charge! Who wouldn’t want to hang on to a promise like that? It was, surely, one worth living and dying for. We know, because Paul tells us in Galatians 2 and elsewhere that the disciples holed themselves up in Jerusalem to await God’s intervention; for them this meant the return of their Master who would carve up the transformed world and put them in charge of it.

So there we are, three good reasons why Christianity caught on:

  • Visions of Jesus, which meant that, even if his body had died, he had miraculously gone beyond death and would be returning soon;
  • The promise of God’s Kingdom on Earth, when the underdogs would become top dogs;
  • The susceptibility and gullibility of those at whom the message was aimed.

This is why the new movement spread rapidly, particularly among the susceptible, gullible under-class. No resurrection was necessary. Over time those visions, like Jesus’ message, would morph into something quite different, giving us the myth of a physical resurrection, a church he never intended founding and, eventually, the ‘promise’ of heaven. These were never part of the original ‘Good News’.

Happy Easter, y’all.

Christians’ Favourite Delusion 7: What a friend we have in Jesus

James

So you’ve decided to follow Jesus and from here on in, Christians tell us, you’ll share real intimacy with your Saviour.

There are many permutations of this belief: having Jesus in your heart; walking daily with the Lord; enjoying a loving relationship with him; letting him speak to you. All rely on the premise that the post-mortem Jesus is an eternal, supernatural being who is able, somehow, to stroll, chat and administer one-on-one therapy. The old spiritual, still much beloved in Christian circles, declares ‘what a friend we have in Jesus’, while Mary Stevenson’s modern parable insists that his footprints are beside the believer’s in the sand – except, that is, when he has to carry them.

However, the concept of Jesus as bosom buddy and occupier of right and left ventricles is nowhere to be found in ‘God’s word’. Yes, there’s the possibility of feeling Jesus’ presence when with other believers; the shared delusion of Matthew 18.20 that over time would morph into ‘the Holy Spirit’. And it’s true too that Paul decides in 1 Corinthians 6.14 that believers’ bodies are sanctuaries or temples of this same Spirit. But these are both a long way from a Jesus who lives within the believer’s heart and, as another old hymn has it, ‘walks with me and talks with me along life’s narrow way’.

The Jesus of the gospels is not looking for people to be his chums. He does say in John 15.14, ‘you are my friends if you do what I command you’, but this is hardly what we’d call ‘friendship’ – ‘you can only be my friend if you do exactly what I say’ is the unreasonable demand of playground bullies and manipulators everywhere. It certainly isn’t friendship in the sense we normally understand it. But even if you’re taken in by this offer, do you do what he says? It’s highly unlikely, given that he insists you sell all you have and give to the poor, turn the other cheek and transform yourself into a slave, working selflessly and sacrificially to bring about the Kingdom of heaven:

…whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave; just as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve… (Matthew 20.26-28)

When you’ve turned yourself into a lifetime servant of others, surely then you can expect Jesus to be your best mate? Like the disciples before you, who also wanted to be part of God’s circle of favourites, you miss the point of what it was, and is, to be a slave; to work ceaselessly in demanding conditions with no reward, no wages and no acknowledgement. The most any servant of God can expect, Jesus tells us, is that he will say ‘well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master’ (Matthew 25.23). That’s it – that’s the extent of your ‘reward’: he’ll recognise your position as a slave and tell you you’ve pleased him, your slave-master. And that’s what you call friendship?

Jesus is not your loving buddy. He never said he would be and you’re just confusing him with James Taylor if you think he did. Even if you want to ignore what the Bible says about being a slave – and I’m betting you do – you can’t have a relationship with someone who has been dead for 2,000 years.

Face facts, Christians: your ‘friendship’ with Jesus, your entire concept of him, is no more than the product of your own imaginations.