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.
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.
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.
Over the years the more closely I have paid attention to what the Bible actually says, the more puzzled I have become by the claim that Jesus was a great moral teacher. Many of the teachings attributed to Jesus are obscure and confusing. And some are simply horrific. Here are a few random observations.
- “For to those who have, more will be given; and from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away.” (Mark 4:25) I’ve been reading the Bible my whole life and I have no idea what he means here. Is he endorsing the Paul Ryan budget proposal?
- And everyone who speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven; but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven.” (Luke 12:10) This is the famous unforgivable sin passage. But Jesus never really defines what it means to blaspheme the Holy Spirit. It seems that if there were only one sin that could send a person to hell for eternity, it would be nice to have a really clear and detailed explanation of what that sin is. Instead, we are left in the dark.
- Several times in the gospels Jesus says that his teachings will result in tearing asunder the parent-child relationship. “Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death; and you will be hated by all because of my name.” (Mark 13:12-13) See also Matthew 10:34-39.
- Many people say that they prefer the loving God of the New Testament over the vindictive portrayal of God in the Old Testament. Yet it is not until the New Testament that we get a doctrine of hell as a place of eternal torment. It all comes from Jesus. In Mark 9:48, he describes hell as a place where “the worm never dies and the fire is never quenched.” In contrast, the apostle Paul does not mention hell at all, which potentially suggests that the teachings about hell were put in Jesus’ mouth after the time of Paul in an attempt to intimidate and control members of the early church.
I will pick up this topic again in the next post where I will briefly explore what people really mean when they say they find the teachings of Jesus inspiring.