What About Jesus (part 2)

Thanks for all the comments on the last post.   Sorry I’ve been late getting back to you all.  I was doing a little traveling last week and got behind on the blog.  Today I just want to respond quickly to some of the questions you asked on “What About Jesus?”

Kim wrote: “So if he [Jesus] was just another Jewish preacher, why/how did he become such a lightning rod?  Was there something particularly different about him…?”

There were certainly other dynamic religious teachers and preachers who were more or less contemporaries of Jesus.   Apollonius of Tyana is one who comes to mind.    Hillel the Elder (110 BCE-10 CE) continues to inspire modern Judaism. (Many of the sayings attributed to him sound like teachings also attributed to Jesus.)   So why did the Jesus movement triumph and persist?  I think the reasons are pretty mundane.   Competition between religions is not any different from competition among any other human enterprise, ideology, or product.  Why did VHS triumph over Betamax?  How did the A&P lose out to Kroger?

The triumph of Christianity was a case of the right message at the right time marketed in an effective way.   It was a brilliant fusion of Judaism with elements of popular Roman mystery cults, and for a variety of reasons it struck a chord.  For more on this topic I highly recommend The Rise of Christianity by Rodney Stark and The Evolution of God by Robert Wright.

Julia asks: “So what exactly did Paul’s letters say regarding Jesus if he never mentioned the virgin birth or miracles?”   Paul mentions Jesus’ death and resurrection a lot.  But aside from that he says hardly anything at all about Jesus’ life.   It is particularly curious that Paul never quotes Jesus even when it would have been advantageous for him to do so.   If I had to put money on it, I would bet that many of Paul’s teachings to the early churches got re-worked later and inserted in the mouth of Jesus.  In Romans 12-15, for example, several passages sound very much like what we hear in the Sermon on the Mount.

A big turning point in my journey away from faith in Jesus as the Savior came when I learned that one of my favorite gospel stories,  the Parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man (Luke 16), actually came from pre-Christian pagan sources and did not originate with Jesus at all.  That was a serious wake-up call.

Toby wrote:  “Mohammad has had followers for 1,400 years (or so) and Moses has had followers for 3,400 years (or so).  Do we make the same conclusions about Moses and Mohammad that we do with about Jesus?” 

Good question.  And let’s not forget Buddha as well. Yes,  the dynamics in each of those cases are similar to what happened with Jesus.   In fact, revisionist historians of Islam are now beginning to doubt if Muhammad even existed.  Buddha, Muhammed, Moses, and others are reminders that the historical impact of  Jesus is not really all that unique.  The same thing has happened throughout history around the world.


What About Jesus?

June 4, 2012 12 comments

From time to time I’d like to use this space to respond to questions I’ve received from readers of this blog.   Here’s one for today:

Correct me if I’m wrong, but I think the existence of Jesus is not questioned–just maybe some of the details surrounding his life.  So if he did exist and if he did inspire people with his teachings then what do we do with that?  If we do not see him as the son of God, then was he just some kind of crazy person who was very persuasive?

The consensus among scholars is that, yes, Jesus did in fact exist.   He probably was an itinerant Jewish preacher of the apocalyptic variety who attracted some followers.  He was executed by the authorities.  The movement he inspired lived on after his death and quickly morphed into various groups with vastly differing theologies.  Beyond that there is not much we can say with any certainty at all about the life of Jesus.

The earliest Christian writings we have are the letters of Paul, which predate the gospel accounts of Jesus’ life by decades.  Paul does not mention the teachings or miracles of  Jesus.  This is beyond curious.  I’ve heard all the usual responses to this strange omission,  and they are all very weak.  Paul also makes no mention of a “virgin birth.”     His account of the resurrection includes none of the details that we associate with the Easter story.   In fact Paul seems to describe more of a “spiritual” resurrection of divine visions and appearances  in contrast to the  emphasis on a bodily resurrection we see in the gospel accounts.

It seems probable that many of the sayings attributed to Jesus in the gospels were actually put in his mouth posthumously. I also think it’s very likely that many of the teachings of Paul that sound like something Jesus would have said were later re-packaged as quotes from Jesus.

Over the centuries, Jesus has become a religious Rorschach test.  People tend to project on him the values that are near and dear to their hearts.  Conservatives see him espousing traditional conservative virtues.  Liberals see him as a champion of social justice, exercising a “preferential option for the poor.”   Quakers, Amish, and Mennonites see him as a pacifist.    Most Christians, however,  subscribe to the “just war” theory, also based on Jesus’ teachings.  Years ago Jerry Falwell even said he was sure Jesus would approve of using nuclear weapons when necessary.

In the end, what we say about Jesus most certainly says more about us than it does about him.   And in that respect, studying the figure of Jesus is a fascinating window into the complexities of human nature.


A “Purpose-Driven” Life?

May 30, 2012 8 comments

Several years ago Pastor Rick Warren of Saddleback Church published a book called, “The Purpose-Driven Life” which sold millions.  Clearly the book struck a chord with many people and was the beginning of a whole “Purpose-Driven” empire of products.   The “purpose” that Warren wrote about is pretty simple:  We are all put here to glorify God by serving humanity. (It’s basically a re-packaging of the opening question from the Westminster Catechism of 1647–Q: What is the chief end of man? A: The chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever.)

This model of human purpose raises a few questions.  Is it really possible that all 7-plus billion people on earth have the same fundamental purpose?  And if that purpose is for all of us to spend our lives singing the praises of the Great Heavenly Leader–doesn’t that sound just a little totalitarian, like living in a large version of North Korea?

One of the critiques thrown at the freethought movement goes something like this: “But you’re taking away people’s sense of purpose!   What is there to live for if you take God’s plan out the equation?”

What is there left to live for?  Here are a few possibilities.

  • Discovering what your passions and talents are, and pursuing those areas of life that bring you joy.
  • Using one’s unique talents for the betterment of life for others.
  • Learning more about how the world works.  Science is the gift that keeps on giving, a never-ending source of wonder, awe and new insight.
  • Relishing the joy of human fellowship, especially family and friends.

Honestly,  do you really need any more “purpose”  than that? I really don’t see why the myths of religion are necessary to convey virtues like love, forgiveness, humility and service.  Isn’t it possible to affirm and celebrate the goodness and beauty of life without requiring people to believe implausible things?

I guess I even question why it’s necessary to believe in some large, over-arching purpose.   Can’t our sense of purpose change with different life circumstances.  For instance, as I’m writing this post, I am waiting on the delivery of a very yummy pizza.  At the end of a long day, that pizza is all the purpose I’ll need for the rest of the evening.

Follow-Up to Yesterday’s Post

First of all, I just want to say thanks to everybody who commented on yesterday’s post (5/22).   I really appreciate you taking the time to read and to respond.    So I’d thought I’d do a quick follow-up today–mainly to the questions that were raised.

“Adtz” gave a great response to Julia’s question about the Israelites and their Canaanite origins.  I don’t have much to add to that.  Some scholars have suggested the possibility of a small band of escaped slaves who joined up with the Canaanite tribes, but hardly any credible scholar thinks that anything like the mass exodus portrayed in the Bible ever happened.   And  “Yahweh” appears to be the result of a merger between two earlier tribal gods “Ya” and “El.”

Julia, you also mentioned that you had trouble wrapping your mind around the Trinity.   Good for you!  I take that as a sign of sanity (and I’m not being facetious.)  Theological discussions about the interrelationships of the Persons of the Trinity are incomprehensible.   When you try to follow the logic of the Trinity, it always ends up reminding me of that old Willie Nelson song, “I”m My Own Grandpa.”    Of course the concept of the Trinity as we have it today emerged gradually in the early centuries of Christianity’s existence.  And in those early centuries various Christian groups had a broad range of opinions regarding the divine/human nature of Christ.

Chris Breman asked how others have worked through the process of leaving religion.    Some of you shared parts of your story, but if anybody wants to share more, I’m sure it would be helpful to others.  I’m convinced there are many secret skeptics out there.   (See “The Atheist at the Breakfast Table” in the latest issue of Psychology Today.)

Finally, I really liked John Stutzer’s description of a dinner in a VFW hall for volunteers fighting the 1993 Mississippi flood as the best “communion” he ever had.     A lot of great images and symbolism there.    Those kinds of moments can help us recognize and affirm a common humanity that transcends the tribal labels we so often use to define ourselves.   Christian communion has often been a vehicle for separating people, especially along doctrinal lines.  I’m all in favor of experiences that bring us together.

Thanks again, everybody, for the good conversation.

Bible Problems to Ponder

May 22, 2012 16 comments

Virtually everybody who attends a mainline seminary learns facts about the Bible that will rarely, if ever, be shared with the typical congregation.   Ministers are generally reluctant to talk about how the Bible was largely shaped by  geopolitical facts on the ground.  Perhaps the lack of discussion about problems with the Bible is an example of the attitude expressed in that famous line from the film “A Few Good Men,” when Jack Nicholson’s character shouts, “You can’t handle the truth.”

When I was working in churches, I too, never really shared what I had learned about the Bible.  Here are just a few examples of some difficult realities that believers should probably know about:

  • There is basically no archaeological evidence at all to show that the Exodus event ever happened.  Most of the evidence actually suggests that the Israelites were  Canaanites all along.  All those marvelous images we have from the movie “The Ten Commandments”?–forget about them.  It’s all fiction.  And there was no conquest of the land as depicted in Joshua and Judges. These stories are most likely national creation myths written down in the late 7th century BCE, to support King Josiah’s plan for national unification and expansion.
  • There is also no evidence that either David or Solomon ruled over a great kingdom.   If David did exist, he was probably a minor tribal chieftain and not a commander of vast armies.   The temple of King Solomon was supposed to have been one of the grandest edifices in the ancient world, yet none of its remnants have ever been found–and not for lack of trying.
  • Jesus, as depicted in the gospels, gets more than a few things wrong, and that’s problematic if he’s supposed to be fully divine.   He was an intensely apocalyptic preacher who clearly expected the end-times to happen very soon.  See, especially,  the thirteenth chapter of Mark, where Jesus predicts the darkening of the sun and the moon, the stars falling from the sky and the “Son of Man” coming in glory within the lifetime of those hearing his words.   Obviously, the prediction did not come true.
  • Paul’s letters predate the gospel accounts of Jesus’ life by many years.  Yet Paul does not reference the teachings or miracles of Jesus.  When Paul talks about Jesus’ resurrection he does not mention a bodily resurrection, an empty tomb, or many of the other details we associate with the Easter story.

Well, this is just the beginning of the problems to grapple with.  And none of the items mentioned above are some kind of fringe position.   This is all part of mainstream biblical scholarship.  But it’s not widely known or discussed in churches.

I only have a vague notion of who reads this blog.  But I would be interested to know a couple things:  If you are a believer, how do you deal with the numerous historical and archaeological problems in the Bible?   And if they don’t impact your faith, why is that?  If you are a freethinker, do you ever engage your believing friends on these issues?  If so, what do they say?

Thanks for reading.



The Bible Strikes Again

May 18, 2012 1 comment

Since President Obama’s public announcement of his support for same-sex marriage last week, the response from the right has shown us yet again that the Bible continues to drag our society down.   In several stories on radio and television I’ve heard people angrily denouncing the President’s stance saying, “It’s wrong because the Bible says it’s wrong!”

That’s it?  That’s all you got?  “It’s wrong because the Bible says it’s wrong.”  Is it really that hard to think with a just a little more nuance?   And how can we even begin to have a conversation with a mentality like that?

From time to time I have encountered conciliatory progressives who urge patience and moderation when dealing with the fragile psyches of the Bible believers who wish to impose their worldview on everybody else.   After all, they will say, religion has a valuable role to play.  As an inherently conservative institution, religion acts as a necessary brake or a corrective on those who would change society too quickly.   I’ve heard that argument more than a few times.  Change is good but it has to be gradual.

Why does all social change have to be gradual?  I don’t get it.  Who would possibly get hurt if same-sex marriage were suddenly legalized all over the country tomorrow?

The influence of the Bible was a huge reason slavery lasted until the 1860’s in this country. (Actually slavery persisted under the form of sharecropping well into the 1960s.)   Why did the Land of the Free tolerate human bondage for so long?  Partly because the Bible says slavery is OK.  I’d be willing to bet the slaves wished that social change had been a little less gradual in their case.

On issue after issue–slavery, women’s rights, reproductive rights, Prohibition–the legacy of the Bible in American public life has largely been a story of oppression and social regression.  The role of the Bible in American life is analogous to the role of the Koran in the Arab world.   Any difference between the two situations is merely a difference of degree, not a difference of kind.

(Actually, I’m not saying that the Bible is totally worthless.  In a post-Christian, secular society there are actually still good reasons to read the Bible, which I’ll get to in another post. )


Christian Community and Freethought Fellowship

May 16, 2012 1 comment

Recently I’ve been participating in various freethought gatherings around town.  Having been active in churches my whole life, it’s been fun to compare and contrast the fellowship events of believers with those of skeptics.   The biggest difference I’ve observed so far is the nature of the conversation.   At freethought gatherings, the conversation frequently involves philosophy, religion, science, the Bible, and current events.  The crowd tends to be fairly well-read.   When I first started attending fellowship gatherings for non-believers, I expected to hear a lot of religion-bashing.   And there has been some of that, but by and large it’s not the main focus of conversation.

Ironically, the conversation at freethougtht gatherings tends to be more theological, if you will, than the banter at Christian fellowship events.  I’ve heard nuanced discussion about the history of religion,  scriptural interpretation, and the role of religion in public life.   At these events I’ve met people who have described themselves as atheists, agnostics, skeptics, and deists.   However these are not different “denominations” of freethought–just different places on a continuum of disbelief.

When Christians gather for their fellowship events, generally the conversation does not include discussion about Augustine, Aquinas, or other theologians.   They don’t talk about church history.  And they don’t talk about the Bible.  What do they talk about?  Life–the kids, work, vacations, gossip.  Quotidian topics.  Let me be clear; this is not a criticism.  I’m not saying that freethinkers are “better” than believers because they tend to talk about headier stuff.   But I do think that the nature of the conversation at Christian gatherings demonstrates that metaphysical concerns are definitely not the driving force in the day-to-day life of believers in American today.

Homo Sapiens is an intensely tribal species.  And religion is one of the most potent expressions of tribalism that humans have ever devised.  Generally speaking religious people  do not gather to ponder the meaning of life or the nature of the Atonement or the interrelationships of the Persons of the Trinity.   Rather, they gather for the same reasons members of the genus homo have gathered for hundreds of thousands of years:  for mutual support, for solidarity, to assuage feelings of loneliness.  The particular God under whose name they gather really doesn’t matter.  It could be Dionysus, Isis, Vishnu, Yahweh, whoever. The function of religion is pretty much always the same:  the primal need to band together for safety and security in a hostile world.