Friday, 8 April 2016

What really happened to Jesus?

Easter came early this year, which is my excuse for why this blog post about it is late. In accordance with tradition, I made hot cross buns on the Friday and waited until Sunday before consuming any Easter eggs. You might think that I wouldn’t have much time for a tradition based on something I no longer believe, but somehow the buns and eggs both taste more meaningful this way. Also, this semester I’m taking notes for a New Testament Greek class, who are reading their way through the Book of Revelation. So I can’t help speculating, from time to time, on what may have really happened one Passover in Roman Jerusalem to inspire the world’s most popular faith.

Thanks to my personal history, I know a lot of people whose sense of self-worth and identity hangs on the answer to that question. Indeed, they themselves would go further – their eternal destiny hangs on it. That being the case, my putting forward an alternative answer might be seen as something of a red rag to a bull. What do I hope to achieve by doing this, except to make those people angry? Well, for one thing, I don’t think I should have to shut up about my own opinions just because they differ from other people’s. Like I said, personal history. I researched this for over a year in my early twenties, not to annoy people but because I needed to know the truth. I wrote it up rather hurriedly and incoherently and put it on my first website, which may or may not still be knocking around somewhere. It’s important to me too.

I no longer believe in either God or miracles. This necessarily implies that I think people who do believe in God and miracles are wrong. It does not imply, and I want to be very clear about this, that I think those people are fools, or dishonest, or cowards. There is a school of thought among atheists that religious people will sooner acknowledge the wrongness of their beliefs if we just mock, belittle, and insult them enough – the beliefs, not the people, but that distinction blurs all too easily, especially on the internet. I think those atheists are also wrong.

However, that doesn’t mean I hold with the opposing school of atheist thought either – that we should never criticize religious beliefs because they are so important to the people who believe them. Speaking as a former believer, that’s a deeply patronizing attitude. “Oh, of course we who are mature rational adults can handle the world without gods, miracles, or an afterlife, but these poor little lambs couldn’t cope with the nasty truth. We must be gentle with them.” That might apply to anyone in limited circumstances, such as bereavement; as a classifier, it’s insulting.

Atheists of the first school are often referred to these days as “atheist fundamentalists”. Mostly, I don’t think this is helpful. Often it seems “fundamentalist” means nothing more than “anyone who thinks it’s a matter of fact whether God exists or not” (or any other religious proposition), which tars an awful lot of moderate religious people with the “fundamentalist” brush.

That being said, there is a cast of mind I remember from my Christian past and recognise in some atheist discourse now. It’s related to what has recently been dubbed “virtue-signalling”. Basically, you take a question that your group takes a firm stance on, and you take a slightly further-out version of that stance, and you proclaim it loudly so that if your fellow group-members disagree they look like a bunch of compromisers. Then someone else steps still further out, and of course you have to agree or you look like a compromiser. And so on.

Humans are human regardless of our beliefs, and this behaviour is common to us all. From the outside it looks either competitive – “I’m more Christian / atheistic than you!” – or fawning – “I really do belong in the Christian / atheist club with you guys!” But from inside it’s often prompted by sincere enthusiasm, with a wash of pity for those unlucky enough not to have seen the light. I see it just as often in groups that I happen to agree with as groups that I don’t. I presume I indulge in it myself more often than my own (equally humanly common) self-serving cognitive biases allow me to recognise.

Among atheists (this is where all this becomes relevant to the Easter question) this insidership-signalling sometimes takes the form of a conspiracy theory. Not only was Jesus of Nazareth not the Messiah, the Son of God, the Saviour of Mankind, the Prince of Peace, the King of Kings, or any of the rest of it – he didn’t even exist! He was made up out of whole cloth by the early Church, or St Paul, or the Council of Nicaea, or some such. Take that, Christians!

Occasionally one comes across a Mythicist who happily restricts their mode of discourse to presenting evidence and drawing logical conclusions. They do exist. They’re just rare, and quiet. Far more often you meet the ones who start by discrediting some supernatural story in the Gospels, which isn’t hard, and then claim to have debunked Jesus altogether. Then when you step up and say “No, I don’t believe Jesus turned water into wine, but that doesn’t mean he didn’t exist,” they generally resort to personal attacks. These are the most long-drawn-out, acrimonious debates on atheist internet forums.

So let me begin by formulating two entirely distinct and separate hypotheses. I think the balance of the evidence favours one, but not the other. Assenting to one does not imply assent to the other. Fair warning: I will be very sarcastic with anyone commenting on this post who confuses the two.

  1. Jesus of Nazareth was a Jewish man who lived in the country now known as Israel back when it was part of the Roman province of Syria. He preached against the establishment and attracted a following who believed he was a miracle-worker. Eventually he was executed by crucifixion.
  2. Jesus Christ was the only-begotten Son of God, born of a virgin to save humanity from sin. He suffered on our behalf and died, then rose again and ascended into Heaven, from where he will one day return to judge the living and the dead, after which he will reign forever over the righteous.

Christians traditionally believe both. Mythicists proudly reject both. The world being the big diverse place that it is, there are presumably people somewhere who believe Hypothesis B but not Hypothesis A, but I haven’t run across any. As you’ll have guessed, my position is that Hypothesis A is very likely true, while Hypothesis B is almost certainly false. Let me reiterate: these are two separate hypotheses. They are not the same thing.

The Gospels are full of references to Hebrew Bible prophecies which Jesus supposedly fulfilled. This is used by both Christians and mythicists to argue that Hypothesis A implies Hypothesis B. Christians say the prophecies are about Jesus; mythicists say Jesus was invented to fit the prophecies. Usually, however, the Gospel “fulfillment” doesn’t in fact fit the prophecy all that well. In one extreme case the Gospel-writer actually made up a prophecy to slot Jesus into (Matthew 2:23) – which is quite inexplicable on either the Christian or the mythicist view, but exactly what you’d expect if Jesus’ admirers had a bunch of real-life facts in one hand and a bunch of Bible texts in the other and had to squish them together somehow.

Naturally this doesn’t mean every biographical detail in the Gospels is factual. The Nativity stories in Matthew and Luke are particularly suspect. They agree on Jesus’ birthplace (Bethlehem), his later domicile (Nazareth), his parents’ names (Mary and Joseph), and his mother’s degree of sexual experience (nil), but differ on everything else. It’s possible, of course, to blend the two narratives into one; every church Christmas pageant for centuries has managed it. But if you were to read two such different stories about the same event anywhere but in your religion’s holy book, you’d conclude that at least one of the tellers was talking through their hat.

First, they recount completely different events. Matthew has no manger, shepherds, or angels; Luke has no star, Wise Men, or Herodian massacre. That last one is particularly telling – it’s most unlike Luke to miss a chance to shame the Herods. Also, their timing is incompatible. Luke, accurately, puts the “first census” (and thus Mary’s pregnancy) during the governorship of Quirinius. In Matthew, Herod the Great tries to kill the baby Jesus. So what? So Quirinius was the guy the Romans replaced Herod’s son with when he couldn’t hack governing, that’s what. The first census came years after Herod’s death.

All of which gives the lie to another atheist gibe, that “Christianity is one woman’s lie about her pregnancy that got out of hand.” The Virgin Birth is a late addition to the Gospels. Neither Mark nor John, nor St Paul for that matter, have any notion of it. (By the way, I’m using the four traditional Gospel names for convenience; there’s masses of scholarship over who actually wrote them, which is too fascinating to allow myself to be sidetracked by here.) With history, you can always make things up to make the story go the way you think it should have. I’ve known Christians postulate an earlier, forgotten census under an earlier, forgotten Quirinius governorship, just to iron that inaccuracy out of the Bible.

Mythicists shouldn’t get cocky. They face a similar embarrassment in Galatians 1:19, where St Paul refers to St James as “the Lord’s brother” merely to distinguish him from other Jameses, not to make any religious point. This makes sense if Jesus was a flesh-and-blood person with brothers, but not if he was some kind of myth or allegory. Mythicists do with this exactly what Christians do with Quirinius: they postulate an order in the early Church called the “Brothers of the Lord”, otherwise unattested, for James to have belonged to. Sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander, guys. Making things up doesn’t count as an argument.

So where did the Virgin Birth story come from? Well, in the Hebrew Bible, the prophet Isaiah assures King Ahaz that things are soon going to get better for Israel. When? Isaiah’s prediction amounts to “Within nine months,” but what he actually says is “A young woman shall conceive and bear a son and call his name ‘God is with us’” (Isaiah 7:14). The Hebrew word for “young woman”, עלמה (‘almah), was later mistranslated into Greek as παρθένος (parthénos), “virgin”. But that’s not the whole story, because Jewish scholars have agreed on the “nine months” interpretation since before Jesus’ time, and it’s clear enough in context. Why did the Christians put such an outlandish slant on it?

The answer has a lot to do with why Christianity, rather than any other Jewish sect, caught on in the Roman Empire. (Jews in the first century were keen to convert others to their faith, an attitude which Christianity has inherited but modern Judaism has not.) As well as gods, the Romans had a lot of demigods. Contrary to what the Asterix books would have you believe, their most popular oath was not “By Jupiter!” but meHercule, “By Hercules!” – the god-begotten hero who did wonders, righted wrongs, slew the serpent in the paradisal garden, and returned alive from the Underworld. If this new Christ person was to fill Hercules’ sandals, he too had to be the son of a god.

Probably still more importantly, believers in the Virgin Birth were also allowed to pray to a goddess of sorts from time to time. That sounds wrong to me, because I was brought up Protestant. Protestants do believe Mary hadn’t had sex when she gave birth to Jesus, since that’s in the Bible, but they don’t pray to her or otherwise revere her any more than, say, St John the Baptist. And it is a core Protestant belief that the Protestant Reformation was a return to Christianity’s roots. But the fact is that reverence of the Virgin appears in Christian writings as early as the Virgin Birth itself, around the mid-third century.

So the whole Nativity shebang really is a myth. I don’t dispute that. And the layer it was pasted over also seems to be made up. Matthew and Luke both give Jesus a royal patriline from King David via his not-really-father Joseph, but between David and Joseph their only commonality is a “Zerubbabel son of Shealtiel” halfway through. They can’t even agree on who Joseph’s father was, which is highly suspect in a culture where he would have been known all his life as “Joseph son of Jacob / Heli”. (The traditional resolution is that, in direct contradiction to the text, one of these is actually Mary’s patriline.)

An important clue appears early on in Mark, where the people of Jesus’ home town refer to him not as “the son of Joseph” but as “the son of Mary”. This is not because Joseph has died and Mary is still around; that would make it all the more important to keep Joseph’s name alive by attaching it to his son’s. It’s because there wasn’t a Joseph, or if there was, the Nazarenes knew damn well he wasn’t Jesus’ father. The part of Luke’s Nativity story where Mary is discreetly sent off to a relative in another town to have her baby may have some truth to it after all.

Which may help to account for another anomaly in the Gospels: Jesus’ attitude to women. Women tend to disappear in writings of the time – St Paul tells us the other Apostles were all married (I Corinthians 9:5), but the Gospels never mention their wives. Jesus, however, treats women as near-equals to men, fully deserving of the Kingdom of God. Above all, when men’s heads are turned by lust, Jesus departs from his Hebrew predecessors, his Graeco-Roman contemporaries, and his Christian successors, and puts the responsibility solely on the men (Matthew 5:28). Men are forbidden to abandon their wives on flimsy pretexts to go chase younger skirt. There will be no marriage in the Kingdom.

This is one of the things that nowadays makes the Gospels look fake, like a historical novel where an ancient Egyptian character has somehow picked up twenty-first-century values around slavery, democracy, and human rights out of the blue. But if it was made up, it was made up by people to whom it was just as anomalous as it would have been to Jesus. It’s more parsimonious to postulate only one such aberration. Circumstantial though the evidence is, all is explained if we suppose that Jesus’ real father abandoned his mother and left him to grow up with a deep sense of injustice on the subject – an intriguing thought, but not one I plan to hang any arguments on.

There’s no reason to suppose Jesus’ birth would have been recorded anywhere; the Roman Empire didn’t keep files on non-citizens. Thirty years after the fact, when Jesus was making himself known, hearsay would have been all there was to go on. So the unreliability of the Nativity stories doesn’t invalidate the supposition that there’s a core of fact to the Gospels as a whole. Now I’m not going to go over Jesus’ healing and preaching ministries, or this will become a book instead of a blog post. You can have hours of fun figuring out plausible explanations of the various miracles. The Gospel-writers focus their attention on one particular miracle, and from here on so will I.

One thing, though. The Gospels, as both Christians and mythicists eagerly point out, generally make Jesus look like something utterly new and astounding. Mythicists make much of the fact that no writings at all about Jesus survive from his lifetime (the Gospels as we know them came centuries later). Wouldn’t such a remarkable individual have drawn comment somewhere? Well, maybe. But we also have a follow-up to the Gospels in the Acts of the Apostles, almost certainly written by the same person as the Gospel of Luke. And the way Acts tells it, you couldn’t turn a corner in first-century Judaea without bumping into a would-be Messiah, faith-healer, or miracle-worker. One more would not have been worth wasting papyrus on.

Mythicists seem to forget that whatever happened, it all happened over a millennium before printing was introduced to the West. A Jesus in today’s Middle East might well be worth a few inches of column space, maybe a thirty-second clip on the 6pm news. But the Roman Empire had no newspapers or magazines. The Roman writers whose work has survived belong almost entirely to the aristocratic 0.1% of the population. Such popular works as existed were about things like how to get rich, seduce women, or predict the future – how lucky we are to have progressed so far since then! Even when things did get written down, we only have them today because an unbroken chain of scribes thought them worth copying. You can see how that would filter out any heterodox versions of the Jesus story.

Early on in the Gospels Jesus tells people who call him the Messiah “not to make him known”, i.e., not to go around telling people he’s the Messiah. But eventually – after St John the Baptist’s death, at a guess – he accepts the role, staging a triumphal entry into Jerusalem in a probably deliberate reference to Zechariah 9:9. Then he attacks the Temple currency exchange market in an act which, today, would undoubtedly have gotten him on the CIA’s terrorism watch list, and probably had a similar effect at the time; the Romans’ peace-keeping policy in Judaea depended critically on the Temple being left the hell alone. (A few decades later, sick of dealing with all the infractions, they destroyed it. The passages where Jesus “predicts” the destruction, and the end of the world soon after, were presumably written then.)

The Gospels agree that Jesus is betrayed by one of his disciples, Judas Iscariot, for money. Understandably, none have anything good to say for Judas. But what happened to him afterwards? Matthew says he hanged himself; Acts says he fell, burst open, and “all his bowels gushed out”. As with the Christmas stories, you can combine the two if you feel you have to, but if it wasn’t the Bible you wouldn’t feel you had to. Yet both stories contain the side detail of a potter’s field being bought with the bribe money, which is odd if they were independently invented. Maybe I’ve watched too many crime dramas, but when one witness says “suicide” and another says “accident”, and the vic is known to have been hated – well, there’s a third category of violent death as well, isn’t there?

The next part of the story has almost certainly been tampered with, at least in the first three Gospels. Jesus is charged with blasphemy in the Sanhedrim, the highest court on Jewish legal and religious matters. They meet at night, try the charges without eyewitness agreement, and sentence Jesus to death on his own testimony within twenty-four hours – and in that one sentence the Sanhedrim have already broken at least four of their own rules. The critical question, the one Jesus is condemned over, is “Are you the Messiah, the Son of God?” But Jews do not believe the Messiah will be the Son of God. In John there is no trial by Jewry, only a private interrogation by the current and former High Priests. It’s pretty clear the Sanhedrim incident was invented long after the fact; to what purpose, we’ll soon see.

Next, Jesus is brought before Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor, who wants to exonerate Jesus but can’t face the dissent that would follow. This is out of sync with other sources, which make Pilate an enthusiastic squelcher of dissent with no concern for innocence. Mind you, those other sources don’t tell us much; we can’t rule out the possibility that the Gospels merely show us an otherwise unrecorded facet of his character. What we can rule out is the crowds who here, and nowhere else, roar “Crucify him!”, and when Pilate literally washes his hands of the matter, respond “His blood be on us and on our children!” – a line that Mel Gibson cut from The Passion of the Christ for being too anti-Jewish.

Most Christians today are sympathetic to Jews, although, as Gibson illustrates, “most” is not “all”. This is not the historical norm. Read what Christians have written about Jews, and done to Jews, from the second century to the nineteenth; the sheer, senseless, unrelenting hatred will singe your retinas. Well, it starts right back in the Gospels, when they blame the Jews for killing Jesus (hence the fictitious Sanhedrim trial) – despite the fact that Jesus is executed by a Roman method by order of a Roman official on a charge of raising a Jewish rebellion against Rome. That’s another sign that there’s a core of fact here. If the Gospels had been invented out of whole cloth, Pilate would have had no part at all, and the Sanhedrim would have stoned Jesus to death.

Mark, the earliest Gospel, claims the Jewish authorities hated Jesus because he kept winning arguments with them. There is some serious cross-cultural misunderstanding going on here, as quickly becomes evident if you compare the Gospel with the Talmud, which is a large body of Rabbinic debate from the first century. The disputes in Mark are actually remarkably civil; no-one chases impertinent questioners away with a measuring-rod. But some Gospel-writer clearly didn’t understand this, because he keeps inserting remarks along the lines of “That was when they decided they had to kill him” into perfectly ordinary theological discussions. Which is one indication (of many, just so you know) that this non-Jewish writer was working from an older, genuinely Jewish, source text.

The writer of Luke and Acts is a bit more enlightened. Jesus does criticize the Pharisees in Luke, but he also socializes with them, and they warn him when Herod is looking to kill him. In Acts the Pharisee Gamaliel persuades his fellow high-ranking Jews to leave the Christians alone. This writer’s bile is reserved, in considerable bulk, for the Herod dynasty and their supporters. In Matthew, by contrast, the Pharisees are the villains throughout. They’re even lumped together a couple of times with the “chief priests” – who were in fact Sadducees, a group separated from the Pharisees by a much deeper ideological divide than that between the Pharisees and the Christians.

John abandons all nuance and refers to Jesus’ antagonists simply as “the Jews”. John of course is different from the other three in many ways – largely in that it doesn’t share their sources, but also in Jesus’ long speeches, quite foreign to the other Gospels, about his own divine nature and his true followers’ superiority over those to whom, at one point, he says “You are of your father the devil.” I was brought up, like probably most modern Christians, to believe that this remark was addressed to the sinful world in general. I’m afraid that’s a very recent reinterpretation of a text which has justified the persecution of Jews since within a century of its composition. If there had really been a Sanhedrim trial, John would have reported it with relish.

Jesus takes a few hours to die, instead of a few days like many crucifixion victims. There is archaeological evidence for the practice of speeding death along by breaking the victims’ legs – at least in Judaea where a corpse could not be left out on the Sabbath. John weasels a Psalm around this which predicts that God’s favoured will be saved from all harm, but words it as “not one of his bones is broken” (the men on the other crosses get theirs broken but not Jesus because he’s already dead). Unusually, it’s Luke here rather than John whose narrative diverges from the other three, and all of the divergences make Jesus look like a model saint; he says “Forgive them, they don’t know what they’re doing” rather than “My God, why have you abandoned me?”

The sky goes dark for three hours in the day, but the writer of John doesn’t notice and nor do any historians. The curtain of the Holy of Holies in the Temple, where only priests go, is torn in two – which priest told a Gospel-writer about it is never revealed. The saintly dead rise from the grave and preach to many in the city, but no-one in the world notices except the writer of Matthew. The Gospel-writers weren’t unusually credulous for their time; the soberest Roman chroniclers solemnly recorded omens like comets, eclipses, and donkeys giving birth to cats. The Good Friday miracles are pretty standard fare. The Resurrection is another matter. Details are carefully documented. The writers knew this one was important.

And it’s thanks to those details that we can reconstruct what really happened. The clues are all there in the text. Jesus is killed on a Friday. The Sabbath begins at sunset on Friday, so Jesus’ followers have to prepare him for burial in a hurry. They need somewhere close to put him so that they can come back and do it properly when the Sabbath is over. A Sanhedrim member called Joseph of Arimathaea volunteers his own newly-constructed family tomb for the purpose. We’re told he’s a secret Jesus sympathizer, but he may merely have been concerned with upholding the purity of the Sabbath. On Sunday morning, the followers return to the tomb to finish the job, to find it open and the body missing.

The Sabbath begins at sunset on Friday. It ends at sunset on Saturday, not at dawn on Sunday. When the followers turn up, the Sabbath has been over for twelve hours. Mark has them meet a young man in white, who says to them “Are you looking for Jesus of Nazareth who was crucified? He’s not here. Come and see the place where they laid him.” (He then sends them on to Galilee to watch Jesus ascend into Heaven; but since the writer of Luke and Acts, who used an old version of Mark as a source, has Jesus ascend into Heaven from the Mount of Olives near Jerusalem instead, that part can’t have been in the original.)

Did you catch that? He’s not here. Come and see the place where they laid him.

He’s not here; he’s somewhere else, and I’ll show you.

Joseph of Arimathaea came back on Saturday evening after the Sabbath was over and removed the executed criminal’s body from his family tomb, which after all had only ever been intended as a temporary place for it. The young man was there to lead Jesus’ followers to his permanent resting-place.

Not quite the conclusion that the Gospels draw, no. Luke turns the young man into two men in shining clothes. Matthew makes him a dazzling angel. John tells a different story, in which Mary Magdalene goes to the tomb while it’s still dark and meets Jesus himself. Only she doesn’t realize it’s him at first; she thinks he’s the caretaker. When she does recognise him, he pulls away, saying “Don’t touch me.” Remember, it’s dark and someone she loves has just died, which is always the hardest thing to get your head around. Maybe she got it right the first time. Maybe this person was the caretaker. Or maybe he was the same young man sent by Joseph to show Jesus’ followers where the body had been put.

Oh, but surely someone would have remembered? And didn’t they put guards on the tomb for that very eventuality? Yeah, funny thing about that. Only Matthew puts guards there (they faint in terror when the angel turns up). The “chief priests and Pharisees” – two opposed factions, you remember – recall that Jesus predicted he would rise again three days after his death, so they ask Pilate to send soldiers to prevent the Christians from faking a resurrection. None of the Christians expect a resurrection at this point, likely because the “prediction” wasn’t any such thing but was reinterpreted into one after the fact, like the secret clues the Beatles supposedly left on their albums to show that Paul McCartney was dead.

Of course it all fails. Jesus rises from the grave and the soldiers have to report this to their employers. This being Matthew, the Pharisees are rotten to the core, and they bribe the soldiers to go around telling people they fell asleep at their posts – a story which, if they were Roman soldiers sent by Pilate, would have gotten them executed – and that Jesus’ followers stole the body. But then comes the reason why this whole cock-and-bull story has been concocted: “And this rumour has been spread among the Jews to this day.” Someone did remember the body had been removed. Mythicists take note: if anyone at the time was going around saying Jesus never existed, the Gospel-writers didn’t bother arguing the point. The one rumour any of them felt the need to quash was that his body had been taken out of the tomb dead.

Over the next few weeks Jesus is seen repeatedly by his disciples, but there’s something different about him. He appears out of thin air and vanishes again. Strangers turn out to have been him all along. He is seen to rise into Heaven in two different places. These features are all characteristic of hallucinations. The only Appearance that doesn’t look hallucinatory, in John, is suspiciously similar to a pre-crucifixion incident in Luke (Jesus helping out with the fishing). And the one thing that mentally healthy people often hallucinate without taking drugs is recently-dead loved ones. We just can’t process the fact that they’re gone. Evolution has provided us with a complex neural library of software for living socially with other humans, but apparently no human gene has prospered in the gene pool by implementing a .delete() function.

I’ve mentioned a couple of times that the Pharisees and Sadducees were opposing parties within Judaism, and the Temple priests were Sadducees. When there’s a factional divide within a religion, you can bet two things: (1) it’s really about power and wealth; (2) both sides rally around some theological question, often quite trivial, on which they happen to disagree. Here, the question was “Will the dead rise again?” The wealthy Sadducees said “No.” The Pharisees and Christians, who championed the poor, said “Yes.” We can’t know why the latter two groups first parted ways, but if today’s grassroots politics is anything to go by, then probably St John the Baptist and some influential Pharisee didn’t see eye-to-eye.

So what we have is a group of people who are already partisan adherents of the doctrine that the dead will some day rise again. They’ve just lost someone they love. They believe this person was blessed by God with miraculous powers. They’ve been to his grave and found it opened and empty. And some of them think they’ve seen him and spoken to him. Even if you didn’t know anything about Christianity, you can see there’s only one way this is going to go.

It took me much longer than it should have to figure all this out. I couldn’t engage mentally with the topic, because I had walled it off in my head. If I came to believe something other than what I believed about this, I would no longer be who I was – a Christian. I had already accepted that life evolved by natural processes, that there was no such person as Satan, that traditional sexual morality was so much guff, that the Bible came from a bunch of people doing their best rather than the Creator, and that a God who would send my late beloved uncle to Hell for not believing in him wasn’t worth worshipping. But the Resurrection of Jesus Christ had to stay or the whole thing would dissolve into the Void. So if you’re having similar trouble with what you’ve just read, I get it.

Needless to say, given that this blog post exists, I’ve come to terms with it since. Yes, it does mean that I have no assurance of eternal life. But the way I see it now, eternal life isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Life is precious because it’s short, because we don’t get another go. We don’t really want to go on forever, because “forever” doesn’t fit into a human brain. We just want there to be no sad ending. Which, if it’s any comfort, is exactly what we’re each going to get – just not together. I’m never going to experience my own death, because when I’m dead there won’t be a me to experience it.

Exactly how Jesus’ death is supposed to help us has been debated for as long as there have been Christians, but the general idea is: we’re all lost in sin, but Jesus’ sacrifice paid for us, or took our place, or washed us clean, or whatever, so now we can get all right with God again and receive the gift of eternal life. Why were we lost in sin in the first place? Because apparently God’s infinitely wise product design responds to user error by breaking unfixably long after the fact. Oh, but God was giving us the gift of free will! – the way Gandalf was free, up on the top of Orthanc, to step over the edge any time he wanted. It really does make exactly that much sense.

But it does make sense, if you’re a pauper or a slave in a militaristic, domineering empire, to step in behind a new Hercules who’s a pauper himself just like you, who took the worst the empire could possibly throw at him and came back more alive than ever to tell you: you’re one of God’s favoured ones, and if you’re with me they can’t beat us. And I’m afraid it also makes sense, if you’re an official in a continent-spanning mediaeval institution, to convince people that the God you stand for is the only thing between them and damnation and if he had to go through that (here you point up at the crucifix) to make it work, what makes you think you’ll get anywhere without us?

The bottom line, the real reason I just spent three weeks writing this post, is this. If, when I get up and leave this room, it turns out there is a hunger-crazed escaped tiger waiting for me just behind the door, and I die, some of the people I care about most will think I have gone to Hell. I don’t want them to think I have gone to Hell. I can no more prove that there isn’t a Hell than that I can prove there isn’t a hunger-crazed escaped tiger behind the door, but I cheerfully bet my life on the second one dozens of times a day because sometimes a lack of evidence is enough to justify taking a position.

That – and I think Jesus of Nazareth was an interesting human being who has been unfairly upstaged by his own religious persona.


  1. Your link to Matt 2.23 has the address:
    This leads to a page doesn't exist message. You need to change it to:

  2. I was having a conversation about this a few days ago at a post on Love, Joy, Feminism, with a mythicist who happened to be one of the comment moderators. I'm hoping it's a coincidence that a comment I posted answering their query about textual evidence was spambinned. For the record, that comment ran as follows in subsequent comments -- it's too long for this blog's comment character limit.

    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

    2. (Really, Blogspot? I can't edit my own comment and I also can't delete it without a stupid "This comment has been removed by the author" replacement? Even when it hasn't been replied to?)

      Here's the passage in question:

      "But when it pleased God, who separated me from my mother's womb, and called me by his grace, to reveal his Son in me, that I might preach him among the heathen; immediately I conferred not with flesh and blood: neither went I up to Jerusalem to them which were apostles before me; but I went into Arabia, and returned again unto Damascus.
      Then after three years I went up to Jerusalem to see Peter, and abode with him fifteen days. But other of the apostles saw I none, save James the Lord's brother. Now the things which I write unto you, behold, before God, I lie not.
      Afterwards I came into the regions of Syria and Cilicia, and was unknown by face unto the churches of Judaea which were in Christ..."

      He's not saying anything of any religious import about St James. All he's saying is that he met him. The only reason for calling him "James the Lord's brother" is to distinguish him from other Jameses, of whom there were at least a couple -- St James son of Zebedee, brother of St John the Evangelist, for instance.
      Was St Paul telling the truth? Maybe, maybe not, though it seems odd to make up a lie about who he saw in Jerusalem. But the fact of James being "the Lord's brother" isn't the point he's trying to convey, which to historians and other scholars makes it more reliable.
      (By analogy: If I tell you "I saw an alien in the middle of Dunedin, in the Octagon just in front of the statue of Robert Burns," you can't take that as evidence that Dunedin has aliens, but you can take it as evidence that Dunedin has a statue of Robert Burns.)
      Which is as good an indication as you ever get from a historical document that there really was someone widely known to the early church, including St Paul's Galatian audience here, as "James the Lord's brother".
      So either there was some order in the early church called "the Brothers of the Lord", otherwise lacking in any attestation...
      ...or there was a person, a flesh-and-blood person, referred to by this time as "the Lord", and he had at least one brother and it was St James.

    3. By the way, Josephus at one point mentions St James, as follows:

      Festus was now dead, and Albinus was but upon the road; so [the High Priest Ananus] assembled the Sanhedrin of judges, and brought before them the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ, whose name was James, and some others; and when he had formed an accusation against them as breakers of the law, he delivered them to be stoned.

      There is a solid scholarly consensus that this passage is genuine. But it's not the one I was referring to. That one runs, in the texts we have, as follows. Some scholars dispute the whole thing, but the more widely held view is that only the bits in italics below are fake, and the other bits are how the passage originally ran.

      About this time there lived Jesus, a wise man, if indeed one ought to call him a man. For he was one who performed surprising deeds and was a teacher of such people as accept the truth gladly. He won over many Jews and many of the Greeks. He was the Christ. [Possibly that sentence originally read "He was called the Christ."] And when, upon the accusation of the principal men among us, Pilate had condemned him to a cross, those who had first come to love him did not cease. He appeared to them spending a third day restored to life, for the prophets of God had foretold these things and a thousand other marvels about him. And the tribe of the Christians, so called after him, has still to this day not disappeared.

      So the claim that Josephus "never mentioned Jesus" is quite false. He almost certainly mentioned him at least as the brother of St James, and he probably also discussed him briefly in his own right.
      There remain innumerable other points of scholarship. Again, I've covered some of the bigger ones in my article; I'm thinking if we want to continue this conversation, we should maybe go to the comment section there, rather than lengthen out this thread which is at most tangentially relevant to the topic at hand.