This is the fourth part of my multi-part story of how, as a non-believer, I spent years in my teens and twenties looking at all the evidence for and against Christianity as fairly as I could and eventually concluding it wasn’t true. The introduction is here, and will have links to all published parts.
At this point in the story, I was still in sixth form, which refers collectively to the last two years of school, aged 16 – 18. If you know the US system, that’s the equivalent of the junior and senior years of high school (age-wise, I mean; the schooling system is completely different and quite a bit more specialised at this point).
The Gospels and Jesus
As per the last post, I was well aware of the flaws in gospel accuracy. However, they were still the best information we had available on the origins of Christianity, so reading them seemed to be another obvious step. However, despite repeated attempts – starting sometimes with gMatthew because it was the first in the layout and sometimes with gMark because it had been the first written – I got bogged down each time and gave up. I read a lot of separate sections of the gospels, and since then I have read all of gMark, but at the time I never made it through any of them. The main reason for this was, simply enough, that Jesus sounded horrible.
Everything I’d previously read or heard had led me to believe that, when I read Jesus’s story, I’d find an amazingly sympathetic friend/overwhelmingly wise teacher like no other. Instead, he seemed predominantly to spend his time ranting about how awful everyone else was, including the people who supposedly had been his friends. Following Jesus seemed to be about having it rammed into you how badly you were screwing up, with a coating of patronising magnanimity to the effect that he was prepared to love and put up with you anyway. I didn’t, at the time, have the know-how to either fully articulate this or recognise it as a classic dysfunctional/abusive relationship pattern, and hence fretted that my instinctive reactions against it might be just the sinfulness that apologists assured me was an innate part of all of us. But that conflict between what I was supposed to be finding in the stories and what I actually was seeing there was uncomfortable enough that I couldn’t go on reading them.
While I didn’t have the words or understanding to explain properly why that part of the gospels bothered me so much, there were also some specific incidents described that I knew were wrong. There was the time Jesus got in a snit just because a tree wasn’t producing fruit when he wanted it to (the intended symbolism escaped me at the time, so this one just came across as Jesus throwing a bratty tantrum). There was the time he was fine with having costly ointment poured over him after having told other people they were supposed to sell everything and give all their money to the poor (I was firmly on Judas’s side on this one, and, yes, I did notice how the gospel author wanted to discredit him by imagining a corrupt motivation for him when he was clearly the one in the right). And, above all, there was the time when a mother came to him desperate for help for her dying child and he called her and her child dogs and wouldn’t help her until she begged him. Even allowing for the theory that it might just be my sinful soul putting me off listening to Jesus’s words of truth, I really didn’t think he was making too good a showing here.
But surely at least Jesus’s teachings were dazzlingly wise beyond anything the world had previously seen? Well… these didn’t seem to live up to the hype either.
For one thing, Jesus outright banned divorce (with a possible exception for female adultery, depending on whether you believed Matthew or Mark; however, both of those sources were very clear that no other exceptions were allowed). I was (and am) all for the importance of marriage and the desirability of being committed to keeping relationships going where possible, but I did recognise – even as a naive and starry-eyed teenager – that sometimes it wasn’t possible. If a relationship had broken down past fixing, how could it possibly be a good idea to keep the two people concerned trapped in it rather than give them each the chance of someday finding happiness with a different partner? And that, of course, was even before you got to the really difficult cases where the consequences of keeping a marriage going could be downright dangerous. Your partner could be beating you, sexually abusing your children, and gambling or drinking away the household finances, and according to the law Jesus laid down you’d still be stuck with them for a lifetime, even where that meant keeping children stuck there as well. This law sounded like a terrible idea to me.
Jesus also, supposedly, taught that even thinking about doing something wrong was just as bad as doing it. To be fair, it wasn’t actually clear to me that Jesus had in fact meant that; I don’t just mean in the sense that none of us are really sure what Jesus said and what was added into the story later, but in the sense that the actual words he’s claimed to have spoken might not mean that. Jesus said, according to the translations we have of Matthew, that thinking about doing something wrong meant doing it ‘in your heart’; but he never said that that was as bad as actually doing it. In the spirit of fairness with which I was approaching all this, I thought it reasonable to give him the benefit of the doubt on this one. However, I certainly saw it interpreted that way by some of the Christian teachings I read; and, if that was really how it was meant to be interpreted, then that was a terrible law. How could we help the thoughts that crossed our mind? Why should someone be blamed just because a thought of something evil happened to pass across their mind? (1) Of course that wasn’t as bad as actually doing the thing!
(It did strike me as a strange contradiction that while Christianity claimed Jesus had tossed out all those nasty restrictive laws that the Jews had previously been stuck with – in fact, outright hyped this as one of its selling points – it actually managed to come up with laws far more burdensome than anything I was seeing in Judaism.)
Of course, there were better aphorisms among the things Jesus was quoted as saying. However, I was reading enough about Judaism to know that ideas such as ‘Love your enemy’ were developments of contemporary Jewish thought rather than forays into completely new, hitherto unknown realms of ethics. Our modern-day society gave Jesus all the credit for these, but they had in fact evolved from the context of a considerable amount of rabbinical thought and wisdom developed over the years.
These were the other thing of note about the gospels, and, of course, starting at the beginning of gMatthew means coming up against a lot of them straight away, because the author loves telling us that such-and-such happened in accordance with such-and-such a prophecy. The Bible I was reading (2) footnoted each of these with the OT verse or passage that was supposedly being referenced, so I started checking them. It immediately became apparent that Matthew was… well, very, very creative in what he was willing to count as a Messianic prophecy.
A virgin shall conceive? Nope; that line actually came from a completely different prophecy involving a threatened war centuries earlier. Also, from the general reading on the subject I was doing, I learned the original line didn’t even specify a virgin but used a more general word for a young woman.
Out of Egypt I called my son? Again, this line made perfect sense in context as a description of an OT story; there was nothing to suggest it was actually meant as a Messianic prophecy.
He shall be called a Nazarene? That line didn’t even occur in the OT; Matthew seemed to have invented it completely to fit his case.
Same thing at the other end of the stories, with the prophecy references in the Crucifixion scene. ‘They have pierced my hands and my feet’ was a) a mistranslation, and b) in the middle of what seemed to be a poetic piece of writing describing a number of different possible deaths at the hands of others; there was nothing miraculously prophetic about finding that one of those lines was very vaguely similar to something that had happened in somebody else’s death. ‘They shall look on Me whom they have pierced’ was supposedly a line God had said himself that referred, in context, to emotional wounding.
These supposed prophecies weren’t a miraculously specific foretelling of Jesus’s life; they were a bunch of lines taken out of context and sometimes mistranslated to boot.
I did find a few cases where the ‘prophecy’ that the gospel authors referred to did in fact seem, in context, to have been intended as an actual Messianic prophecy. However, the two main ones were the descent from David and the birth in Bethlehem, and, for both of those, the two gospel accounts we had completely contradicted each other (not to mention the problems with a mass slaughter of infants that was nowhere else mentioned or a census that supposedly expected people to go back to the birthplace of their distant ancestors to register). And, since Matthew and Luke wanted to believe Jesus was the Messiah and to get other people to believe the same thing, that gave them a pretty clear motive for inventing those stories. Even I wasn’t too naive to add two and two on that one. There was also the prophecy about the king riding to his people on a donkey, but since Jesus apparently believed he was the Messiah and also would likely have known of that prophecy, it didn’t seem particularly remarkable to me that he could have arranged the colt ride in the genuine belief that this was what he was supposed to do next; nothing supernatural required on that point.
So, where did this leave me?
Unfortunately, in pretty much the same place as before. What I was reading in the gospels didn’t give me any reason at all to feel I should fall on my knees and worship the person acting this way. However, the reason I was doing this in the first place was because I recognised that ‘The teachings of this religion are horrible’ isn’t a logically good reason for reaching conclusions about the truth of it. Meanwhile, I still felt stuck with awkward questions like ‘Why were all his friends claiming to have seen him do miracles, if he hadn’t?’ and ‘Why did they think he’d risen from the dead if they hadn’t seen it themselves?’ I had even more reasons for not wanting Christianity to be true, but I didn’t feel any further forward in determining whether it was true.
Next up: was Jesus the Messiah? (Spoiler: no.)
(1) To be fair, I do think that most churches would in fact interpret this verse much more sensibly, and I think it perfectly reasonable to interpret it as being an admonition about dwelling on these sorts of thoughts. In other words, feeling angry with someone is normal, but nursing a grudge and building up your bitterness instead of looking for ways to resolve things and see their side is not OK. Likewise, you’re sometimes going to notice people other than your spouse are objectively attractive, but spending your time fantasising about them isn’t good for a monogamous marriage. So, if that teaching was the only objection I’d ever had to Christianity, I’d be a Christian today. However, it does sometimes get set up as a very unrealistic standard of perfection in which everyone gets labelled sinners just for having normal reactions, regardless of how they handle them and how they behave over them.
(2) We had a few different editions at home, but the one I was reading at this point was the Good News Bible, because the edition we had was the one with the nice bright yellow cover and colourful picture of Noah and the rainbow, which I always liked. It wasn’t until years later that I found out it wasn’t considered one of the better translations, but there you are; I was judging a book by its cover.