Tag Archives: Jesus

An evil sacrifice

The Bible relates a story of an innocent person, punished for someone else’s transgressions, and ultimately put to death for them.  Christians would identify this person, especially today, “Good Friday,” as Christ Jesus, and extol his sacrifice as a supreme demonstration of God’s love for us.  But this is not the person about whom I speak.  Instead, I refer to another:

After Nathan had gone home, the LORD struck the child that Uriah’s wife had borne to David, and he became ill. David pleaded with God for the child. He fasted and went into his house and spent the nights lying on the ground. The elders of his household stood beside him to get him up from the ground, but he refused, and he would not eat any food with them. On the seventh day the child died. David’s servants were afraid to tell him that the child was dead, for they thought, “While the child was still living, we spoke to David but he would not listen to us. How can we tell him the child is dead? He may do something desperate.”  (2 Samuel 12:15-18)

Most people would be morally repelled by the notion of destroying a child for any naughtiness it may have committed.  And excepting the insane or the lobotomized, practically everyone would be aghast and outraged that a child would be tortured and destroyed for someone else’s misdeeds.  “Barbaric injustice” is probably the phrase that captures the collective sentiment best.

So when this is done to Jesus, “the perfect innocent and son of God,” Christians celebrate it?  They tell the world it’s a cause for rejoicing?  They use it as part of their sales pitch to join them?  Sorry, I cannot subscribe to a moral code that calls this good.  Punishing innocent beings for the faults of others is evil in my book.  Even if I grant the Christian god exists, he would be no god I could worship out of love.

What would you do?

Imagine the following scenario:

You walk into your favorite neighborhood Chinese food establishment, salivating over the prospect of dining on one of their hot, authentic dishes.  While looking over the menu stuffed with choices, you become vaguely aware that the usual background music of soft Asian melodies has been replaced by something else.  With attention focused, you realize that the music is explicitly religious, and it’s offering praises to Allah!  As a non-Muslim, do you

  1. Say nothing and order your meal?
  2. Express your opinion about the music to the owner and stay/leave?
  3. Say nothing and leave?

Take a few to think about your answer.

Done?  Ok.  As you’ve probably surmised, I recently encountered this exact situation, with one minor difference.  It was not Allah the music praised, but Jesus.  And my response?  I said nothing and left.  What was yours?

My reasoning is thus.  When I walk into a restaurant, I’m not there to be prosyletized.  While I understand the owner’s intentions are benign, I feel it’s sneaky to introduce me to their religion in this way.  Come for the food, and be saved!  If I had ordered a meal, I’d essentially be condoning this tactic.  At the same time, I recognize that the restaurant is private property and grant its owner the right do with it as he pleases (with a few reasonable limitations, such as serving rotted food, or radishes).  If he believes he’ll derive some monetary – or heavenly – gain by serving Lo Mein with a side of Jesus, more power to him.  By taking my business elsewhere, I’m telling him that he’s possibly miscalculated.

What if the music, instead of extolling Jesus, praised non-belief?  (I know, like that’ll happen, but bear with me).  I would have believed that inappropriate, and said so to the owner if asked, but I’d have stayed.  Is that hypocritical?  Not really.  For one, no proselytizing is going on, from my point of view.  Secondly, I’m essentially telling the owner it’s no big deal to me, or that I actually enjoy it.  Now, he’d probably lose a large chunk of his believing clientele, but if he thinks he’ll make up for it with a surge in non-believer business, then it’s a risk he’s got the right to take.

I suppose this post has been more about libertarian ethics than about religion, but rarely do the two intersect, offering me a chance to write about both of my favorite topics.  One thing I’d certainly oppose is any regulation or law prohibiting the proprietar from playing any music he deems fit, which may be a point of contention among some readers.  Let our collective free choices decide.

Fascinating new research on Jesus studies

Well, besides this 🙂

Anyone interested in the latest scholarly research on Jesus should run – don’t walk! – over to Richard Carrier’s blog and read his take on the recently concluded Amherst conference which the Committee for the Scientific Examination of Religion (CSER) conducted in order to evaluate the evidence for a historical Jesus.  Scholars are making some extremely interesting advances which may upend traditional theories that have dominated the field of Jesus studies up to now.  Like the Jesus Project before it, what the attendees had to say will not sit will with Christians, but even more so.  For example, Gerd Lüdemann, professor of New Testament Studies at Georg-August-University, Göttingen, concludes that Paul’s epistles evince no knowledge of a historical Jesus – a conclusion that to him was unexpected.

Of main interest I think to professional and lay students of religion is the fading of the Q hypothesis.  If you recall, the hypothesis has been popular in explaining the Synoptic Problem, positing the existence of a lost and unknown source document which the authors of the gospels of Matthew and Luke used in conjuction with the Gospel of Mark to write their works.  Instead, another document, the Dominical Logia, may have been the source of all three gospels.  Such is the view of Dennis McDonald, professor at Claremont School of Theology and author of The Homeric Epics and the Gospel of Mark.

Carrier relates the observation that the more scholars study Jesus, the less certainty there is surrounding him.  Both historicists and mythicists will find this discomforting, but it should sit well with those who take an agnostic view on the question of a historical Jesus.  Christianity, again, is a major loser here, for controversy over the words and deeds of its founder can only split the faith further, as well as undermine its claim as the true religion of a creator-deity.  Expect attacks on the work of the CSER from the usual conservative Christian suspects, but liberal Christians will find their faith just a bit more untenable.

Well, He did say “creature”…

Stunning exegetical breakthrough?  Or merely the latest in a string of misinterpretations that have resulted in dubious achievements such as the 2,000 year unbroken record of failed predictions of the Christ’s return? You be the judge…

In a discussion generally expressing confidence that their pets will be raptured along with them, one contributor to the Christian Rapture Ready message board (motto: Where hope springs eternal!) observed:

well I always found it weird that Jesus said in Mark 16:15 “And he said unto them, Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature.” (emphasis in the original)

Folks, have Christians been grossly remiss in their evangelical calling?  The implications are staggering.  Billions and billions of animalian souls possibly lost due to the singular failure to preach them the Gospel as Jesus commanded.  It’s an oversight our dear contributor has fortunately not been a party to.  She continues:

Always hit me as odd…and maybe it’s even odder that I tell my cat about Jesus =)

That is one blessed cat!  It is not given to us to know whether it repented of its sins and accepted Jesus into its heart, but we can trust that it will almost certainly not die an atheist, which cannot be said for every other creature that has ever existed, including those dear pets the Rapturians hope to share heaven with.

Ok, seriously.  What would we atheists do without sites like Rapture Ready?  For one, it’s highly doubtful we’d get our recommended daily allowance of laughter.  I mean, even the master himself couldn’t make up material this good.

And who’s not a little awestruck by the willful delusion that results in this sort of reasoning?  I figure that if I can one day understand it, solving world hunger should be a piece of cake (no pun intended).

“Oh yeah, a few more things.”

Besides Jesus himself, there is no more central character to the Christian faith than the Apostle Paul.  Considered “the great interpretor of Jesus’ mission,” his writings significantly defined Christianity, and, in view of his proselytizing mission to the gentiles, instrumental in the religion’s ultimate success.  But there’s something that’s always bothered me about Paul.  His role seems to suggest that Jesus didn’t get things properly across the first time.

It’s not quite clear, if Christianity is true, why Jesus needed to return decades after his death and resurrection to appoint a new apostle.  Were the original disciples simply not up to the task of carrying on the faith?  True, the gospels depict them as dunces, but Jesus personally chose them, with the keen eye of someone who knows exactly what he’s looking for.  Jesus even called one of them, Peter, the rock upon which the church would be built (Matthew 16:18).  If they failed, is there anyone to blame but Jesus?

Even more puzzling, Paul’s epistles make clear there were major theological disputes between him on the one side, and Peter and James (Jesus’s brother) on the other.  Was Jesus insufficiently clear on certain matters, and used Paul to “set the record straight”?  But wouldn’t that undermine the authority of the original disciples, who had actually, you know, been personally instructed by none other than the master himself?  God is not the author of confusion, we are told (1 Cor. 14:33), but with some of his chosen spokesmen saying this, and others saying that, how could one not be confused?

Perhaps I’m missing something here, but the fact that Paul turned out to be Jesus’ “great interpretor” and font of much of Christian theology doesn’t speak well of Jesus’ teaching or tutelage.

The reliability of the New Testament – a response

Amidst my surfing of Christian blogs, I came upon one that asked, “How can a rational person trust the New Testament?”  Ever the contrarian, I responded that one cannot rationally trust the New Testament (NT), and offered a few reasons why, among them:

1.) The original manuscripts do not exist;
2.) There are well-documented instances of textual corruption (errors, additions, deletions, etc.);
3.) Some of Paul’s epistles are verified forgeries;
4.) To trust the NT requires trusting the Old Testament, which makes it far more problematic given the state of modern scientific knowledge.

I also noted that these were but a “tip of the iceberg” in terms of questioning NT reliability.

Milestoneworship (I don’t have the name of the actual author) responded graciously to my post, thanked me for the questions, and promised a rebuttal, which was recently posted.  In the spirit of dialogue and debate, below I offer my response.  None of this will be new to students of the Bible, but hopefully the small crowd of onlookers who happen upon it will advance their understanding in some beneficial way.

From his response, it is clear that Milestoneworship has a more nuanced appreciation of history and NT difficulties than the average lay Christian, many of whom would respond with the typical apologetic fare of “fulfilled prophecy” or “the Bible is an accurate historical record.” I note, however, that he has not disputed any of the four points above; therefore, I presume he grants them.

To begin, Milestoneworship slightly misrepresents my position, which, to be fair, had not been wholly spelled out.  He writes,

However, Robert’s “all or nothing” tone in his claim reflects a lack of understanding of the scholarship concerning ancient historical documents.  It seems that Robert is suggesting that just because there are elements of controversy within the accounts of events in the New Testament, the New Testament as a whole is invalidated.

Well, not quite.  To an inerrantist, invalidating part of the NT would invalidate all of it, but I never assumed Milestoneworship held such a belief, so that was never my position.  On the contrary, my actual position is that the NT’s problems, from a historical point of view, are far more fundamental than a few “elements of controversy.”  I’ll demonstrate what I mean by examining a few of Milestoneworship’s NT claims.  To start with, consider this:

Yet, when we approach the accounts given in the New Testament, we have at least five seperate accounts of the basic events of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection (the four Gospels and the Pauline account in I Corinthians).

Milestoneworship has chosen his words carefully.  Technically, what he says is true, but the impression I’m sure he wishes to convey differs from the facts in several important respects.  Yes, the gospels are indeed separate (I’ll deal with the Corinthians creed in a bit), but are they independent, and more importantly, do they recount truthful history? On both counts, the question can only be no.  Surely, Milestoneworship is aware of the synoptic problem, which concerns the obvious literary overlap between Mark, Matthew, and Luke.  The problem is such that, in the words of Christian NT scholar Dr. Daniel B. Wallace, “It is quite impossible to hold that the three synoptic gospels were completely independent from each other.”  In other words, the authors copied material.  What did they copy from?  Many scholars believe from Mark, along with another document no longer in existence.  Matthew and Luke come later, contradict each other in some ways, and contain information not originally included in Mark, such as the birth narratives and the resurrection appearances (our earliest copies of Mark end at 16:8).  John, which comes later still, parallels only 8% of the synoptics, contradicts them in several important respects, and was rejected as heretical by many early Christians.

So what we see with the gospels is progressive literary embellishment, a sure sign that we are not reading so much as history but legend.  This becomes even more obvious when we read the earliest Christian writings, Paul’s epistles.

The striking thing about these epistles is how little data they contain of Jesus’s life.  From them alone, one would never know that Jesus was born a virgin, performed miracles, raised the dead, was crucified at Calvary, and subsequently buried in a tomb.  Paul never quotes any of Jesus’s sayings, never places him in any historical settings, sources his knowledge to God or the scriptures, and answers questions which Jesus had (supposedly) already settled.  What possessed to Paul to claim that the Romans never punish the righteous, but only the wicked?  I Corinthians 15:3-8, to which Milestoneworship presumably refers, is but a creed with only minimal reflection in the gospels, and the gospels in it.  In sum, Paul’s epistles are theological statements, only affirming what Christians believed, and raise serious doubts about the historicity of the NT gospels.

If the gospels are largely ahistorical, as I maintain, it would explain another anomaly for Christianity: their utter lack of attestation in the contemporary historical record.  Jesus’s miraculous deeds are well-known to us now, but they were apparently so unremarkable then that no one took written note of them.  And what of the events surrounding his death, such as the resurrection of all those dead saints who walked around Jerusalem and “appeared unto many” (Matthew 27:52-53)?  An every-day occurrence, it seems.  Some apologists have suggested that no historian of that era would scarcely be concerned about another itinerant rabbi in a backwater of the Roman empire, but in fact there were such historians.  Chief among them, Philo of Alexandria.  Philo was a Jewish philosopher and historian living in the early first century Middle East (25 BCE – 47 CE) whose theology would be familiar to any Christian.  For example,

And even if there be not as yet any one who is worthy to be called a son of God, nevertheless let him labour earnestly to be adorned according to his first-born word, the eldest of his angels, as the great archangel of many names; for he is called, the authority, and the name of God, and the Word, and man according to God’s image, and he who sees Israel.

About Jesus, nary a word can be found among Philo’s more than fifty works.

So, if the NT gospels aren’t historical, from whence the stories about Jesus?  As NT scholar Robert M. Price has shown, mostly from the Old Testament.  Through extapolating and re-interpreting scripture, the gospel authors weaved their Jesus narratives.  As Price describes, “Today’s Christian reader learns what Jesus did by reading the gospels; his ancient counterpart learned what Jesus did by reading Joshua and 1 Kings.”  This explain such gospel oddities as Matthew’s Jesus riding into Jerusalem on the backs of two donkeys, from Zechariah 9:9, while Luke and John have him riding on one.

Milestoneworship continues his case for NT reliability with the following:

However, with such a variety of accounts, and the close dating of these accounts to the occurence of the events recorded, historians have virtually agreed on three factual events that the Gospels record:  1)the discovery of an empty tomb three days after Jesus’ crucifixion, 2)the post-mortem appearances of Jesus, and 3)the disciples belief in the resurrection.  I argue that the best explanation of these events is the miraculous resurrection of Jesus.

I consider this to be a moving of the goalposts, so to speak.  The question before us concerns the overall reliability of the NT, not a specific claim made within it.  But since support of the latter can assist in making the case for the former, I’ll nonetheless address it.

Milestoneworship’s argument is one popularized by Christian apologist William Lane Craig.  The facts presented here may indeed be agreed upon by historians, but that doesn’t necessitate the conclusion that God miraculously raised Jesus from the dead.  This is a theological statement, not a historical one, as NT scholar and historian Bart Ehrman pointed out to Craig in a formal debate on the topic.  And as Richard Carrier has shown, it is far, far likelier that Jesus survived, to give but one possible outcome (theft and misplacement are a couple others).

The above response is but a partial case against the reliability of the NT.  Much more could be said about the anonymity of the gospels, their possible authorship well into the second century, formation and disputes over the NT canon, parallels to previous religions and deities, the tremendous amount of early Christian apocrypha which testifies to a wide diversity of belief, and so on.  It is a fascinating subject, but one that is extremely historically clouded, as well.  To be sure, Christian apologists have their responses to each of these objections, and more, just every other faith does with respect to its traditions and holy texts.  But when neutrally evaluated, the reliability of the NT cannot be established by any rational standard.