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

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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?

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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

Why I can’t believe in ‘the Lord Jesus Christ’ (one of many reasons)

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Over on the very smug Christian web-site, Triablogue, which I discovered via Gary’s Escaping Christian Fundamentalism blog, a commenter poses the question, ‘What evidence would it take to believe in the Lord Jesus Christ?’ This is the answer I left:

If the Son of Man came back through the clouds with a heavenly host of angels in full view of the tribes of the Earth to judge the nations and separate the righteous from the unrighteous; if this Son of Man then established God’s Kingdom on the Earth for the meek and righteous while consigning the unrighteous to eternal punishment; if he and those he appointed to rule alongside him then reigned over this Kingdom for ever and ever, and if all of this happened within the lifetime of Jesus’ original followers, as he promised and predicted it would, then, and only then, would I be able to believe in him.

After all, this was Jesus’ good news (Luke 4.43). When none of his predictions/prophesies/promises came to pass then, as always happens with failed cults and failed cult leaders, those who followed came up with alternative explanations. They hoped, and no doubt believed, that these would do instead of the original ‘good news’. In many ways they weren’t wrong, given the later success of these interpretations, but these were not the cult’s original message and were no more true than Jesus’ Son of Man/Kingdom of God fantasy.

* * * * * *

Just in case you don’t think Jesus promised all these things here’s a mere sampling of where he does:

The Son of Man coming through the clouds: Mark 13.26

with a heavenly host of angels: Matthew 16.27

in full view of the tribes of the Earth: Matthew 24:30

to judge the nations: Matthew 16.27

and separate the righteous from the unrighteous: Matthew 25.32

The Son of Man establishing God’s Kingdom on the Earth: Matthew 19.28, 25.34

for the meek and righteous: Matthew 5.3

while consigning the unrighteous to eternal punishment: Matthew 25.46

Those he appointed ruling alongside him: Matthew 19.28, Luke 22.30

and reigning over this Kingdom for ever and ever: Matthew 6.13, Revelation 11.15

all of this to happen within the lifetime of Jesus’ original followers, as he promised and predicted it would: Mark 1.15, 9.1, Matthew 10.23, 16.28; 24.34, Luke 9.27 etc

I apologise for the strong language in the picture above, but c’mon, how can Christians reasonably explain the out-and-out failure of all of Jesus’ promises and predictions, while still maintaining he was somehow a manifestation of the God of the Universe?

Making Excuses for Jesus

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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.

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)

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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)

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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.