God is revealed in Jesus… or not

 

Blog335CompositeOn his blog-site, humbly named after himself, Roger E. Olson trots out the tired old cliche that there’s no such thing as atheism. Atheists, Rog tells us, know in their hearts that God exists, they just choose to ignore him. As a result, Rog has little time for atheism. (I discovered Roger’s wonderfully smug site through Bruce Gerenscer’s excellent one.)

Rog says that if we want to see what this heart-implanted God looks like, then we shouldn’t look to the Old Testament and the tribal warlord we find there – goodness me, no; we can safely discard him! That God just doesn’t match up to our twenty-first century sensibilities. No, if we want to see God then what we must do is look at Jesus, for in Jesus we see what God is really like.

Oops! We’re right back at the problem I’ve been discussing these last few posts: just which Jesus are we talking about? There are so many. There’s the Jesus of the synoptic gospels (though he’s neither consistent nor pleasant), who is nothing like the self-obsessed Jesus of John’s gospel. Paul’s Christ is different again; he’s a complete invention, much like the Jesus of Hebrews who has morphed into a Jewish High Priest. The Jesus of Revelation meanwhile is an Evil Mutant straight out of the Marvel Universe, what with swords coming out of his mouth and all. So which Jesus has Rog got in mind? I think we should be told.

There are so many discrepancies in the various interpretations of Jesus in the New Testament, that it’s hard to see a clear, consistent picture of anything, let alone God, in such a shifting kaleidoscope of images. I’ve recommend that Rog should take atheism a little more seriously; the often incompatible Jesuses of the bible don’t reveal ‘the true nature of God’ anywhere as clearly as he claims. I’d go further: none of them show – can possibly show – what the non-existent is ‘really’ like. What they reveal instead are ideas about a God and a saviour made entirely in the image of the men who tasked themselves with creating them.

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Did Jesus Exist? (part one)

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I want to say at the outset that I don’t think it matters whether Jesus existed or not. Even if he lived, it is highly unlikely he said much that is attributed to him or that he performed the miracles ascribed to him. Neither would it be the case that he rose from the dead or became a supernatural godman afterwards. All of these supposed attributes would be, for an individual who actually existed, later accretions. The man underneath them, the so-called historical Jesus, is difficult to detect. It hardly matters to Christians; they’re really only interested in the accretions, the later add-ons, the myth the man became.

Those who think Jesus never existed raise a number of interesting points, chief of which is that what I’ve referred to as accretions, being central to subsequent Christian belief, actually came first. The accounts of Jesus’ life – the gospels – they see as later attempts to provide the myth with a ‘realistic’ back story based in history. Certainly the gospels came after Paul had had his vision and had set about interpreting it to arrive at his convoluted theology about ‘the Christ’. Jesus-belief certainly existed decades before the first gospel account, Mark’s, and was as a result entirely independent from it. In this scenario, therefore, the myth came first and the stories of Jesus were crafted afterwards as supplementary fiction.

For me, however, as problematic as the gospels are, the synoptic accounts – Matthew, Mark and Luke – are largely at odds with Paul’s theology. If they were written to bolster the myth of a supernatural godman, they don’t do it very well. John’s gospel, on the other hand, is much more successful in portraying a mythical being, which is why its implausible ‘Word became flesh’ is not very much like the Jesus of the synoptic gospels.

The synoptics of course have their own agendas and do not represent accurate biographies of Jesus either – there are too many contradictions and anomalies to claim they do – but, to varying degrees, they do not present a Jesus who is the embodiment of Pauline theology. The synoptic Jesus doesn’t, for example, promote a salvation plan involving his own death or say that faith is the means by which one enters the Kingdom of God. These are ideas of Paul’s, as are notions of grace, election, sanctification, redemption, substitutionary atonement, imputation, gifts and fruits of the Spirit and even more mumbo-jumbo besides.

The good news of the synoptics’ Jesus, however, is that God’s Kingdom is coming to Earth soon and to be part of it one must become ‘righteous’ both by serving others and relating to them in a ‘measure for measure’ way: forgiving in order to be forgiven, being compassionate to be shown compassion, giving in order to receive, not judging so as to avoid being judged. This Jesus and his gospel are, moreover, predominantly Jewish; Matthew’s version in particular is virulently anti-Gentile. All of this is totally at odds with the magic formula of salvation-available-to-all of Paul’s make-believe. If this came first, it is difficult to see why the synoptic gospels would not present, as John does, a Jesus who is more compatible with it.

Either the synoptic gospel writers got much wrong in providing the Christ’s supposed back story or they were representing other traditions, ones that were different from and possibly even older than Paul’s interpretation. Belief in Jesus as teacher, prophet and, possibly, Messiah predates Paul (he refers to it himself while Matthew and Luke make use of an earlier sayings gospel known as ‘Q’) and it seems likely that Mark and Matthew in particular reflect these traditions, untainted by Paul’s fantasies. Of course these traditions too could have been invented, just as Paul’s theology is, but if that is the case, then, once again, the gospel writers – Mark and Matthew especially – make a decidedly bad job of it.

Next: what this ‘bad job’ tells us about the existence of Jesus.

Idiotic Stuff Jesus Said 6: The ‘I Am’ sayings

CampLet’s be clear from the outset here; Jesus never actually made any of the seven ‘I am’ claims put into his mouth in John’s gospel. You know the ones: ‘I am the Way, the Truth and the Life’, ‘I am the True Vine’, ‘the Good Shepherd’, ‘the Light of the World’ and so on. So it is a little unfair to lump them with all the idiotic things it’s more likely Jesus did say (see previous posts.)

How do we know he didn’t say them? Lots of reasons. Firstly, they’re not in the other three gospels all of which were written earlier than John’s, and are therefore closer to the time Jesus lived (though the earliest, Mark’s gospel, was probably put together thirty to forty years after Jesus lived.) If Jesus had really made all those grand ‘I am’ claims, wouldn’t the other gospel writers have recorded them too? Yet none of them mentions even one.

Secondly, in the synoptic gospels – Matthew, Mark and Luke – Jesus has a different message from the one given to him in John’s gospel. The earlier gospels have Jesus talk about himself only very rarely. Instead, he goes on at length about the coming of the Kingdom of God (or Heaven) and how y’all better get ready for it ’cause it’s a-coming soon. Was he wrong about that one! On the odd occasion he does refer to himself in the synoptic gospels, he often does it in a sort of coded way, calling himself ‘the son of man’. He hardly ever uses ‘I’, let alone makes grandiose claims about himself.

Thirdly, all three of the synoptic gospels rely on earlier sources, now lost to us, and none of those has Jesus make ‘I am’ statements either. How do we know? Because, again, they’re not there in any of the three accounts – Matthew, Mark or Luke – that are built up from them. Significantly, one of these sources is an early record of Jesus’ sayings; that’s a ‘sayings gospel’ that doesn’t relate any ‘I am’ sayings.

Fourthly, John’s gospel is late – at least sixty years after JC’s death and also after Paul’s supernatural Christianity had gained a foothold among the gullible. The Jesus of John’s gospel is a reworked version, more in-line with the ‘Christ’ that Paul preached and much less like the Jewish peasant who had lived and preached the Kingdom of God. Despite what Christians claim, John’s gospel is not another eye-witness report (none of the gospels is) that differs only in minor details from the other three accounts. It is total reworking of the story, with its central figure transformed into a sort of divine Superman, and the idea of the coming Kingdom relegated to a single mention. This change of agenda renders the fourth gospel utterly unreliable as an historical record of anything the earthly Jesus might have said.

Fifthly, Christians claim John’s gospel differs from the others because in it Jesus reveals special, secret truths about himself to ‘the disciple whom he loved’, traditionally the John whom the gospel is named after. But again, the problem with this explanation is that the synoptic gospels don’t mention Jesus favouring one particular disciple over the others (unless it’s Simon Peter). In these, John, a loud, brash fisherman, plays only a minor role. Why don’t the synoptics refer to the special, more intimate relationship that John’s gospel refers to? Largely because there wasn’t one – not until the fourth gospel came to be written and ‘John’, who led the community that produced it, wanted to bump up his part.

So, idiotic as it would have been for an itinerant Jewish preacher and ‘prophet’, whose mission ended in failure, to make these claims about himself, Jesus never did. He didn’t say he was ‘the Way, the Truth and the Life’. Or ‘the Vine’. Or ‘the Good Shepherd’. These are claims made for him long after he lived, by people who were persuaded by a snake-oil salesman that a God-man had mystically ‘saved’ them. They ‘re-imagined’ Jesus, sayings and all, to fit their idea of what he must have been like – and John’s gospel was born.

Its Jesus, if he was being honest, should really have said, ‘I Am… nothing but Pure Invention.’

Multiplicity

MultiJesus

Ever see the film Multiplicity starring Michael Keaton as Doug, a man who clones multiple copies of himself? There’s a perfectionist Doug, a slob Doug, a macho Doug, a gay Doug, a romantic Doug… you get the picture. If you haven’t seen the film, you should. Or you could read the Bible for much the same experience.

It’s the original Mulitiplicity, with Jesus as the Michael Keaton character. There’s a Jewish Messiah Jesus, a demanding zealot Jesus, a Greek god-man Jesus, an intangible spirit Jesus and, just like in the movie, having so many clones about leads only to trouble and hilarious consequences. Well, maybe not so much the hilarious consequences, but certainly trouble.

Christians really have time for only one these Biblical Jesuses, the superhero creation of ‘Saint’ Paul’s who goes by the name – the title, no less – of ‘the Christ.’ This Greek god-man makes few demands of his adherents – he does everything for them – and provides them with a free-pass to Heaven (though Paul neglects to mention this particular super-power – you’ll search in vain for promises of Heaven in Paul’s writing.) Supernatural Christ Jesus always proves a better option than the earthy Jesus of the synoptic gospels because ‘gaining a right standing with God’ is a far easier game to play than serving others.

Synoptic Gospel Jesus preaches the coming of the God’s kingdom on Earth in the first century; tells his followers they should sell all they have to give to the poor; commands them to love their enemies and pray for those who persecute them. He insists they should lend without expectation of any return, cut off body parts that offend them and attend to the log in their own eye rather the speck in their neighbours’. No wonder Christians have no time for Gospel Jesus! He’s far too demanding, far too radical, like the super-perfectionist Doug in the film. Oh, they’ll protest they really do believe in Gospel Jesus, but if they did, we would see them doing all the things he tells them they should. And we don’t.

The demanding, Gospel Jesus loses out too to Ephemeral Mystic Jesus, the Jesus found in John’s gospel, the one who just can’t stop talking about himself. Then there’s Avenging King Jesus of the psychedelic nightmare that is Revelation. He’s the one who’s going to come back to Earth at some point (allegedly) to massacre his enemies.

It’s impossible to tell which of the multiple Jesuses is the ‘real’ one. Maybe it’s none of those in the Bible – move over Christ Jesus, Gospel Jesus, Mystic Jesus, Avenging King Jesus; the only Jesus Christians are really interested in is the one of their own making. The one they say lives in their hearts and who once, apparently, lived in mine. This is the best Jesus of all because he can be whatever you want him to be.

Maybe, in the end though, none of the Jesuses, not even the one Christians imagine lives inside them, is real. They’re all just imaginative interpretations of a long-dead, charismatic zealot whose mission went badly awry. And if the Bible hasn’t got a grip on what its central figure is really all about – Jewish Messiah, Greek Christ, intangible spirit – then what else is it confused and wrong about?