‘Deciphering The Gospels Proves Jesus Never Existed’ review: Chapter Eight

‘Deciphering the Gospels’, by R. G. Price, argues the case for Jesus mythicism, which is the view that Jesus never existed on earth in any real form but was an entirely mythical figure in the same way as Hercules or Dionysus. (The author is not the same person as Robert Price, also a Jesus mythicist author.) I’m an atheist who holds the opposing (and mainstream) view that Jesus was originally a human being of the 1st century about whom a later mythology grew up. I’m therefore reviewing Price’s book to discuss his arguments and my reasons for disagreeing.

The first post in this book review is here. All subsequent posts will be linked at the end of that post as they go up.

 

Chapter Eight: Apocalyptic and Messianic Stories That Preceded Jesus

Price starts off with a pertinent question:

If the real-life Jesus is a fictional invention of the author of Mark, who was the Jesus being worshiped prior to the writing of that story? We know that Paul was worshiping someone named Jesus before the Gospel of Mark was written, so what was Paul talking about?

That would indeed be a useful question for Price to address in this chapter, but unfortunately he doesn’t do so. He did, however, briefly give his views on the subject back in the introduction, so let’s skip back to what he says there:

What set the Jesus cult apart was their belief that the kingdom established by the messiah would not be on earth, but rather it would be in heaven. They believed that the material world was hopelessly corrupt and that the “kingdom of God” could never be established on earth. Thus, they believed that an immaterial heavenly messiah would be required to destroy the evil material world and establish a perfect kingdom in heaven. The creation of an immaterial heavenly kingdom required an immaterial heavenly messiah.

Although Price has been vague about how the belief in a crucified messiah, or a messiah as sin sacrifice, fitted in with this, the implication so far seems to have been that this belief would also have been part of the original or early cult (and we do know for certain that such a belief was there by Paul at the latest as it’s in his letters, although we can’t rule out the possibility that it originated with Paul, who very much went his own way where theology was concerned). So, as far as I can see, under Price’s hypothesis the original cult would have also a) believed in the crucifixion (though presumably believing it took place in heaven rather than on earth), and b) interpreted it as a sin sacrifice. I’m open to correction if Price has a different hypothesis regarding that point.

So, on to the next question, which is the topic that Price does in fact try to address in this chapter. How likely would it be that Jews of the time would come up with such a cult?

Well, Price believes the answer is ‘very likely’. To support this, he quotes various stories of the time and lists the many points of similarity between those stories and the Jesus story, concluding that ‘nothing really distinguished the pre-Gospel Jesus cult from many other similar cults in the region’. Unfortunately, this is once again the equivalent of looking for white swans instead of black ones; Price is so busy focusing on the similarities that he’s missing the fact that there are important differences.

Judaism and the origins of Christianity: where Christianity differed

Here is a list of significant points on which the hypothetical cult Price has described differs from typical Judaic beliefs of the time:

  1. The belief that the material world was hopelessly corrupt and evil and would need to be destroyed. Judaism’s view of the material world has typically been strongly positive, with much emphasis on the joys of earthly pleasures; the longed-for Messianic age has normally been pictured as an improved physical world with the harmful parts removed, not as a heavenly world.
  2. The belief that all humans are so hopelessly mired in sin that they cannot be saved from damnation without a sin sacrifice. While sin sacrifice was obviously a key part of the Judaism of the time, this was within the context of a strong belief that humans have the ability to become ever closer to heaven by their own efforts in keeping God’s laws, that the good we do will be counted to our credit when we are judged, and that individuals have the ability to live good enough lives to achieve favourable judgement and heavenly reward.
  3. The belief that this sin sacrifice must be a once-and-for-all uber-sacrifice which will wipe out all necessity for the Temple sacrifices from then on. The Jewish scriptures clearly taught that the Temple sacrifices were required by law and should continue permanently.
  4. The idea of a heavenly being as a sacrifice. The sacrificial system in Judaism has always used animals. The idea of sacrificing a heavenly being would have seemed shocking and pagan.
  5. The idea of sacrifice taking place by crucifixion. Sin sacrifices in Judaism were carried out by cutting the throats of animals carefully selected to be physically perfect specimens. That was the mental image of sacrifice for practicing Jews of the time. Crucifixion, on the other hand, was associated with humiliating punishment.

Now, one very obvious point which should be made here is that Christianity clearly did somehow develop or acquire all of the above beliefs at a fairly early stage. Beliefs 2 – 5 are certainly present in Paul’s letters, and I would say that at least some degree of 1 is also there, although I’m open to correction on that one if anyone wants to make a case to the contrary; in any case, it certainly seems to have become a part of Christianity as time went by. So the question is not whether a cult of the time and place could have developed such beliefs – clearly, this one did – but whether the fact that this did happen is better explained by a historicist or a mythicist scenario.

How did the differences start?

Firstly, how might Christian beliefs have developed under a historical-Jesus scenario? Here’s the theory that makes the most sense to me:

  1. An actual charismatic rabbi gains followers convinced he’s the Messiah.
  2. He’s then crucified, leaving his shocked and grieving followers trying to make sense of this turn of events.
  3. Rather than give up their belief in him as the Messiah, they conclude that his crucifixion must also have been part of God’s great plan, and that God has miraculously restored him to life with a view to returning him to finish the job.
  4. The cult gradually acquires more followers over the next few years, including some with more Hellenised backgrounds (either Hellenised Jews or pagans) whose mental images of sacrifice and divine forgiveness would have been formed in the context of more pagan backgrounds and beliefs.
  5. One of these people reinterprets the crucifixion as a once-and-for-all sin sacrifice and the only way in which humanity can be saved from otherwise irredeemable sin.

How plausible are each of the points in that hypothetical sequence of events?

  1. Highly plausible. This really would have been a typical cult for this time and place.
  2. Also plausible. Crucifixion was a standard Roman means of executing rebels, and having a crowd loudly claim you were the true King of the Jews come to kick out the Romans was the sort of thing about which the Romans would probably not have been all that happy.
  3. Possible. This sort of rationalisation is in line with how people have been known to react to events that should theoretically shatter their most deeply held beliefs.
  4. Possible. While it’s highly doubtful that early Christianity showed the massive rate of growth that Luke tried to depict in Acts, there are always plenty of people around in search of passionate leaders who give them a dream to follow.
  5. Plausible, since this hypothesis fits very smoothly with what we know about one particularly famous and influential Hellenised member of the early church; Paul. We know that he taught a theology that he believed he’d learned from visions, that he saw these visions as a better and more valid source of information than the teachings of the existing church, and (from Galatians) that he had at least one clash with the existing church over differences in teachings. We don’t know the details of the theological differences (because we have no pre-Pauline writings from the original church) and so can’t confirm whether ‘Paul reinterpreted the crucifixion as a sin sacrifice when the original church hadn’t seen it that way at all’ was the actual point of contention, but this is, at the least, a very plausible point at which that belief could have arisen.

(Some interesting supporting evidence for this last point, by the way, comes from the second half of Acts 21, in which Luke describes an incident in which the council tell Paul of their concerns about the reports that he’s been telling Jews to abandon Jewish law. In Luke’s account, the council assure Paul that all that’s needed to solve the problem of these accusations is for Paul to undergo a purification rite at the Temple to indicate his continued commitment to the Jewish law, which Paul does. However, Luke’s story of a council who clearly would find it a big problem for someone to be teaching Jews to abandon the Jewish law, put together with the evidence we now have from Paul’s letters that Paul was indeed teaching precisely that, gives us indirect but strong evidence that this was indeed a point of contention between them. And, since Paul’s belief that the Jewish law can be abandoned stems directly from his belief that the crucifixion was a once-and-for-all sin sacrifice that rendered it obsolete, this makes it likely that he and the Jerusalem church differed on that vital point as well.)

So, overall we have a sequence of events under historicity that seems plausible. If anyone disagrees, please let me know why. Two key points to note about it are that a) this sequence of events gives us an actual crucifixion, meaning that we don’t have to look at why someone would have invented that part, and b) the reinterpretation of this crucifixion as a once-and-for-all sin sacrifice could have happened at a slightly later stage once the movement contained more members from Hellenistic or pagan backgrounds who would have been interpreting the story through a somewhat different cultural lens.

Historicity gives us a plausible theory. How does Price’s theory hold up as an alternative?

Based on this chapter, not well. Price shows no sign he’s even recognised that most of the above are issues; he probably hasn’t. However, he does address one question, which is the question of how people of the time could have come to believe in a crucified Messiah. So, I’ll now look at Price’s explanation, which he finds in martyr stories of the time such as 2 Maccabees.

Price’s theory and the Maccabean martyrs

2 Maccabees, written in the second century BCE, tells the story of a family of seven sons and their mother who were successively tortured to death for their refusal to break kosher laws. 4 Maccabees is a later commentary which interprets the family’s commitment to their faith as highly pleasing to God. Price believes that this indicates that Judaism of the time did have a concept of human sin sacrifice:

Four Maccabees, written after 2 Maccabees and by a different author, comments on the seven martyrs in 2 Maccabees and states that their sacrifice was a “ransom for the sin of our nation.”

[quotes from 4 Maccabees 17]

We see in the stories of the Maccabees the torture and sacrifice of people at the hands of foreign rulers presented as scarifies [sic] to God for the atonement of sins. This shows that the concept of human “sin offerings” was certainly one that existed in Jewish thought and theology shortly prior to the rise of the Jesus cult.

There are quite a number of problems here.

Firstly, Price has a fairly fundamental misunderstanding here of the difference between sin sacrifice and martyrdom. In sin sacrifice, the animal in question was killed because Yahweh directly wanted it killed and because its blood would magically expiate sins. In martyrdom, a person dies for their commitment to a cause; their commitment to their belief is so strong that even death is preferable to violating their belief. What’s pleasing to Yahweh (or other deity) in martyrdom narratives isn’t the death for its own sake, but the level of commitment to Yahweh’s cause that it indicates.

In 2 Maccabees, the boys and their mother were’t killed because of some abstract belief that their blood would be pleasing or appeasing to God; they were killed because of their refusal to break Jewish dietary law. And it’s clear that the author of 4 Maccabees interprets it in this light. In his interpretation, their blood was pleasing to God because it indicated their level of commitment to the law; they were so strongly committed to keeping the Torah commandments that they were willing to be tortured to death rather than go against God’s will by breaking Torah law, and that is what was supposedly pleasing to God. Price has mistaken this for an indication that human sin sacrifice was considered desirable, but that isn’t the case. (Judaism, in fact, historically made quite a big thing out of being against human sin sacrifice in contrast to all those clearly inferior backwards religions that required it.)

Secondly, another key point Price has missed is that the author of 4 Maccabees seems to have believed that 2 Maccabees was a true story. Whether or not it was, the 4 Maccabees author seems to have been responding to it on that basis. What this passage shows, therefore, is that, in response to a story of martyrdom that could easily be interpreted as a meaningless tragic waste of life, a Jewish author came up with this interpretation as a way of retrospectively making it meaningful; an actual story of torture and murder was retconned into ‘but this was pleasing to God’. The author’s starting point was not to show how sin can better be expiated; it was to attempt to make sense out of what would otherwise be a tragedy. Again, this does not fit well with mythicism, which requires that the founders of what would become Christianity came up with the idea spontaneously. Under historicity, there would have been an actual story of a specific executed human to retcon; mythicism wouldn’t have had that head start.

And thirdly, let’s remember once again that Price’s theory is that the original cult believed Jesus to be an immaterial heavenly being. That doesn’t fit well with the Jesus-as-martyr theme that Price is trying to argue here. Martyrs are humans who suffer and/or die for a cause in a way that lets other followers of the cause hold them up as an example to emulate. It doesn’t make sense, therefore, to think in terms of an immaterial heavenly martyr. Price thinks that because Judaism of the time had stories about heavenly beings and stories about martyrs they could easily have combined the two, but he doesn’t seem to have noticed that these are two themes that it doesn’t make sense to combine.

Summary

The mythicist theory requires some person or group spontaneously to come up with several ideas that would have been very unusual within Second Temple Judaism:

  • That God wanted a once-and-for-all uber-sacrifice to do away with the need for the Law
  • That this sacrifice was to take place via a method that was completely conceptually different from the sacrifices that everyone of the time was used to
  • That this was to take place up in the heavens rather than on Earth:
  • That all of this had now happened already (in other words, the belief system somehow jumped from ‘this needs to happen’ to ‘good news, this has all happened!)

Under historicity, however, at least some of these problems vanish. If the original group were following an actual man who was believed to be the Messiah and was crucified, then the third point isn’t an issue at all and the second and fourth are straightforwardly explained by the group having had to deal with their supposed Messiah having actually been crucified (in other words, they were having to make sense out of an actual situation facing them). We’re still left with the question of how the crucifixion was so dramatically retconned into ‘sin sacrifice’, but we now have only one strange and unprecedented event to explain in this context rather than a combination of them, and we have, in what we know of Paul’s story, a plausible potential explanation of how this could have happened.

So, once again, historicity provides a plausible sequence of events for something that seems more difficult and complicated to explain under mythicism.

‘Deciphering The Gospels Proves Jesus Never Existed’ review: Chapter Seven

‘Deciphering the Gospels’, by R. G. Price, argues the case for Jesus mythicism, which is the view that Jesus never existed on earth in any real form but was an entirely mythical figure in the same way as Hercules or Dionysus. (The author is not the same person as Robert Price, also a Jesus mythicist author.) I’m an atheist who holds the opposing (and mainstream) view that Jesus was originally a human being of the 1st century about whom a later mythology grew up. I’m therefore reviewing Price’s book to discuss his arguments and my reasons for disagreeing.

The first post in this book review is here. All subsequent posts will be linked at the end of that post as they go up.

Chapter 7: Non-canonical accounts of Jesus

This chapter looks at whether there’s any support for Jesus’s historicity in what are known as the non-canonical gospels (the various early-ish stories of Jesus that, for various reasons, weren’t considered bona fide and didn’t make it into the official NT).

In this chapter, I don’t actually have much on which to disagree with Price. The non-canonical gospels, like the canonical gospels, were written by unknown authors many years after events, and thus aren’t very helpful in terms of figuring out what did or didn’t happen. They do, of course, add at least somewhat to the general problem that I raised in the last chapter; if gMark really was just a fictional work, how on earth did it lead to so many people being so convinced it was real that they were writing detailed embroidered versions of the story? Price has yet to address that problem. However, as far as specific points are concerned, there’s only one detail on which I wanted to comment.

It isn’t actually about the apocryphal gospels directly but about one of the passages Price quotes from the standard gospels. Near the end of the chapter, Price is talking about passages that gThomas appears to have copied from gMark, and brings up the Parable of the Tenants. I agree with the point he’s making – yes, I think the author of gThomas copied this from gMark – but I wanted to comment on the passage itself, because it raises yet another problem for Price’s theory.

What is important about this particular scene and literary allusion is the fact that it clearly makes the most sense in the context of the First Jewish-Roman War and the sacking of Jerusalem in 70 CE. In concluding the parable, Jesus says “What then will the owner of the vineyard do? He will come and destroy the tenants and give the vineyard to others.

The “vineyard” is Israel, the “owner” of the vineyard is God, the Jews are the “tenants,” and the “others” are the Romans. This is all a very clear and common interpretation, but of course this interpretation only makes sense in the light of the First Jewish-Roman War. This parable is written by the author of Mark as a way of spelling out the meaning of his entire story; it basically explains the meaning of the Gospel of Mark.

It is perhaps worth mentioning that the idea that Mark was alluding to the first Jewish-Roman war is, while a perfectly probable and very widely accepted one, not quite the certainty that Price seems to think. Mark portrays Jesus as describing various scenes of dreadful but rather nonspecific disaster that would befall the Jews. While this might well indeed have been a retrospective interpretation of the war, it’s also vague enough that it might just be either Jesus’s or Mark’s beliefs in a coming apocalypse in which sinners would be destroyed. These sorts of beliefs seem to have been fairly common amongst Jews of the time (as they are amongst fundamentalist Christians today), and thus it’s hardly outside the bounds of coincidence for someone to have come out with such a ‘prophecy’ shortly before an actual disaster occurred. I think gMark could have been written either before or after the war.

However, all that is by-the-by; there is a more important problem for Price’s theory in this whole parable. In the parable, what have the tenants/the Jews actually done that’s led the owner/God to decide to ‘destroy the tenants and give the vineyards to others’? According to verses 3 – 8 of the chapter, the answer is that they’ve repeatedly beaten and/or killed the slaves sent to them by the owner to collect his due, eventually killing the owner’s own son. In the analogy, of course, the slaves are analogous to previous prophets and the son is analogous to Jesus, thought of by Christians as God’s son. In other words, the wrong for which Mark is blaming the Jews in this analogy is… killing Jesus. Or, at least, killing or attacking a series of prophets, culminating in killing Jesus in the same way that they supposedly killed other prophets.

Which, of course, fits perfectly well if Jesus was a historical man who actually was killed; under that theory, Mark is blaming the Jews for this and blaming disaster (whether the actual disaster of the war or an imagined imminent disaster) on them for this action. But, according to Price’s theory, gMark is meant to be an entirely fictional allegory blaming the Jews for something else (Price seems a little fuzzy on what, but clearly in Price’s theory it can’t be for killing Jesus). So how does Price’s theory fit with this parable?

I did raise this point in a previous post. Price replied:

[Mark’s] creating that narrative in his story. Clearly the Jews kill Jesus in his story. The parable relates to the narrative.

OK. Why is Mark creating that narrative in his story? Price believes that Mark wrote this gospel as an allegory in order to convey a message about why he thinks the Jews had brought/would bring disaster on themselves. He’s clearly stated, above, that this parable is Mark’s way of ‘spelling out the meaning of his entire story’. Why would Mark be spelling out that the meaning of his entire story is ‘the Jews are at fault for killing Jesus’ if he was not trying to convey that the Jews were at fault for killing Jesus?

Price is welcome to come up with an explanation, if he’s got one. But it’s yet one more to add to the list of details that make much better sense if the figure on whom our Jesus stories was based was actually a real person.

Questions! Questions for atheists!

Ahem. Sorry for the slight overexcitement. Another person has posted a list of respectfully-asked questions that at least seem to be aimed at a general discussion rather than just point-scoring, and this is catnip to me. You know, I should have thought of giving this as an answer last time a Facebook friend of mine asked for things that made us unreasonably happy; in my case, it’s questions from people who want respectful debate. All right! (rubs hands) Let’s get to it!

Is Your Atheism Based on Study or Experience?

Study. I spent a great deal of time looking at arguments for or against God’s existence, and eventually had to conclude that there just wasn’t any evidence for God that stood up to examination.

Do You Have Purpose and Destiny?

Second, would you say that even as an atheist, you still have a sense of purpose and destiny in your life, a feeling that you were put here for a reason and that you have a mission to accomplish?

I included part of the follow-up clarification because I wanted to comment on a bit of (most likely unintentional) question-begging; I don’t feel that I was ‘put here’, full stop, so asking whether I was put here for a reason is kind of a meaningless question. I was certainly conceived for a reason, the reason being that my parents wanted children, but I don’t think that’s what Michael Brown was getting at. In the same vein, I’m not sure that ‘destiny’ makes much sense here, since that kind of implies someone/something having some sort of destiny in mind for me, which I don’t think is the case (and, my goodness, it sounds rather grandiose!)

However, the answer to whether I have purpose is ‘Yes’. In general, I’m trying to live a good and useful life that gives back to the world. In terms of missions to accomplish, mine are to go on being a good doctor who helps patients, to be a support to my children and do what I can to raise them to have happy and hopefully fruitful lives, to speak up against dishonesty or injustice where I can, and to get all the damn excess clutter cleared out of my life. Works for me.

Does God Exist?

Well, by definition an atheist is obviously going to answer ‘No’, but from the follow-up clarification it seems that this wasn’t actually your question:

Third, would you say that you are 100% sure there is no such being as God — meaning, an eternal, all-powerful, all-knowing being? Or would you say that, for all practical purposes you have concluded that this God does not exist, although it is impossible to prove such a negative with absolute certainty?

The latter. Although, in this context, I think it’s worth pondering the question that made me realise I should be an atheist rather than an agnostic; why is it that the various versions of the above question only get asked about God, and not about beings such as fairies or ghosts that are believed in by some and disbelieved in by others?

Can Science Explain the Origin of Life?

Fourth, do you believe that science can provide answers for many of the remaining mysteries of the universe, including: how the universe began (including where matter came from and where the Big Bang derived its energy); the origin of life; and DNA coding?

Again, these questions are not intended to “stump you” or prove that science can’t answer everything. Instead, I’m genuinely wondering if you feel comfortable saying, “We may not be able to answer all these questions now, but over time, we’ll get the answers — and we won’t need a God to fill in the gaps.”

Since science has an excellent track record with answering questions that once seemed unanswerable, yes, I think it’s a very fair assumption that scientific investigation will provide us with more and more answers over time, just as it’s already provided at least partial answers for some of the above. But I also think it’s worth adding that, even if science doesn’t answer every question (and in fact I think it’s pretty fair to anticipate that it won’t), then that still won’t mean that the answer has to be ‘Because God’. It’s hardly uncommon for us not to know the precise cause of something that clearly wasn’t divinely committed – we don’t assume that every unsolved murder has to have been God smiting the victim – so unanswered questions aren’t a good reason to assume a divine being as the answer.

Have You Questioned Your Atheism?

Fifth, have you had any experiences in life that caused you to question your atheism?

Now you come to mention it… no. I’ve done plenty of questioning along the way, but by the time I started identifying as an atheist, I’d been actively looking at the whole question for something like fourteen years (during most of which time I’d considered myself an agnostic). So, by the time I reached the point of ‘OK, it makes more sense to be an atheist’, I’d spent a lot of time looking up and considering basic arguments and going through the questions, the what-ifs, the ‘is God trying to speak to me?‘, the ‘well, let’s give God the benefit of the doubt here and think about ways in which this particular issue could still be compatible with the existence of a divine being…’. I don’t want to say “I’d done the questioning” because that phrasing frames ‘the questioning’ as something that can be completely over and done with and relegated to the past, and I don’t think that should ever be the case. But in practice, since moving to “well, guess I’m an atheist” I just haven’t seen or thought of any pro-theism arguments that have not been at most a variation on a theme of ones I’ve already exhaustively seen, considered, and eventually concluded don’t hold up.

Are You Materialistic?

Sixth, are you completely materialistic in your mindset, meaning, human beings are entirely physical, human consciousness is an illusion, and there is no spiritual realm of any kind?

Whoa, I think that phrasing should be ‘are you a materialist?’. ‘Materialistic’ means someone who prioritises getting money and possessions! Anyway… I don’t think it makes much sense to say that consciousness is an illusion, and I think a more accurate phrasing of the materialist position on consciousness would be that it’s the product of material things/physical laws. (As are illusions, come to think of it.) But other than that, yes, this sounds correct.

Would You Be Willing to Follow God?

Seventh, if you were convinced that God truly existed — meaning the God of the Bible, who is perfect in every way, full of justice and mercy, our Creator and our Redeemer — would that be good news or bad news? And would you be willing to follow Him and honor Him if He were truly God?

Depends which part of the Bible you’re talking about when you say ‘God of the Bible’.

From reading the earlier part of the Old Testament, I remember a god riven with petty jealousy, orchestrating hideous mass deaths, with archaic views on rape and slavery and some strange gaps in his scientific knowledge. The existence of this god would be bad news.

In the later part of the Old Testament, I glimpsed a different and better kind of god; the god of Ezekiel 18 and similar passages, expecting us to take personal responsibility but also willing to see our virtues and our efforts and to judge us fairly. The existence of this god would be good news, and, yes, I would follow and honour him.

And in the New Testament, we get the most hideous god of all; the one who condemns all non-Christians to an eternity of torment, who blames the Jews for sticking to the laws that he himself strictly instructed them to keep to forever, who expects us to overlook the ways he acted back in the early books, and who tries to convince us that all these things are really signs of great love and concern on his part. The existence of this god would be terrible news. And, to answer your other question, I could never honour such a god, and while I suppose I’d follow him because ‘Or burn in hell’ isn’t really much of a choice, it would never be willingly.

My nonconversion story, part 2: Motivation.

This is the second part of my multi-part story of how, as a non-believer, I spent years looking at the evidence for and against Christianity as fairly as I could, eventually concluding it wasn’t true. The introduction, which explains in a bit more detail, is here, and I’ll link all the parts back there as I write them.

I was sixteen, and in what was then called the Lower Sixth (these days it’s Year 12; for those in the US system it would be junior year of high school), when my longstanding general interest in religion and its practices sharpened into a deliberate attempt to find out as much as I could about Christianity to try to figure out whether or not its teachings were the truth. I don’t recall any specific moment when this happened – it was a gradual drift – but there were definitely reasons why it happened at that point in my life. So here’s a bit more backstory.

Some personal information about me: Although I’ve never been formally diagnosed, it’s been fairly obvious for a long time that I’m on the autistic spectrum. Looking back, this had a big influence on how I approached this; I typically have a very analytical, logical approach to problems, and I also have the typical autistic trait of hyperfocusing on particular areas of interest, which in this case manifested as years of focusing on this question far past the point where most people would have dropped it. However, even before this, it majorly affected where I was emotionally in my life at that point.

Because of my lack of any innate skill in talking to people or making social connections, I’d arrived at the age of sixteen as a major social misfit. This hadn’t particularly bothered me up until then (the bullying and the social expectations did, but not the social misfittery itself), and over the next several years I’d figure out coping strategies. But this point in my life was when I really started wanting to belong to a group but without yet having the faintest idea how to go about it.

It’s an absolute cliché to say that this is when I really became interested in religion, but that’s what happened; this is the point in my life when I started looking seriously into converting to Judaism.

That is, of course, somewhat tangential to the story of how I didn’t become Christian. However, I thought it was worth mentioning because of a claim I often see from Christian apologists trying to come up for explanations as to why people don’t want to convert to Christianity; the claim that atheists just don’t want a god laying down rules for them. By the way, this always makes me wonder what rules they think I want to break; do they imagine I just want to indulge my urges to go on a theft and murder spree? All right, all right, I know the actual apologetic answer is probably ‘SEX! You just wanted to have SEX!’, but, since I’m heterosexual, becoming a Christian wouldn’t have stopped me from having sex; at most, the stricter branches would have expected me to postpone it till marriage, which was a laughingly moot point for me at this particular teenage-misfit stage in my life. Believe me, ‘imminent prospective sex’ was not among the available options at that stage regardless of what religious decisions I made. In any case, while it was something I was curious about, it was a very minor attraction compared to the idea of feeling like part of a group.

Anyway… Judaism. I was, as you’ve seen, fascinated by the traditions and ceremony and structure, and I also loved the centuries-worth of collected wisdom, and the idea of being marked out as separate and special in a way that would simultaneously bind me as part of an in-group. So, overall, I loved the idea of being Jewish. I hovered nervously but enthusiastically on the periphery, going to weekly services at our local (Reform) synagogue and reading everything about Judaism that I could get hold of. I kept the fast days and gave up seafood (I didn’t eat meat at the time for unrelated reasons). I tried building a sukkah in my back garden on Sukkot, although my main takeaway from that was that, wherever my religious future lay, my professional future didn’t lie in engineering.

So, if you happen to be a Christian apologist who was toying with the ‘she obviously just didn’t want God telling her what to do!’ theory, I hope that lays it to rest. Believe me, I would have been thrilled if a god had paid enough attention to me to tell me what to do. (Especially if it involved converting to Judaism.)

Sadly, despite my best hopes, this didn’t happen. No divine announcements, no inner conviction that any god actually was calling me to sign up to a lifetime of this. And I was honest enough with myself to recognise that desperately wanting to be part of a group isn’t actually a good reason to join a religion you don’t believe in.

So that’s how I didn’t convert to Judaism. Back to the story of how I didn’t convert to Christianity.

You might at this point be making the entirely natural assumption that this was also how I became interested in Christianity. It’s fair to say that I was occasionally tempted; while Christianity never held the same kind of innate attraction to me as the rich, vibrant traditions of Judaism, it would certainly have solved the ‘part of a group’ problem and done so rather more easily. Maybe that’s part of the reason why I avoided it; on one level I did recognise that joining a religion wouldn’t solve my various insecurities and that it wasn’t really fair of me to do so for that reason however badly I wanted to, and I think that’s at least part of why I avoided the option that had most chance of working. But there was something much bigger and more direct putting me off, and that was the horror that lay at the heart of Christian theology.

According to conventional Christian teaching, the afterlife is divided into two extreme binary options – eternal bliss or eternal torture – and the choice between them is made not on your actions but on whether or not you accept faith in Jesus. Non-Christians, regardless of how much good they did in their lifetimes or what their reasons are for not being Christian, are thus destined for eternal hellfire. Of course, the majority of people throughout human history haven’t been Christian – most often for very solid reasons such as not having heard of Christianity, genuinely not believing the theology, or having been brought up in a different religion that teaches them that Christianity is apostasy and God doesn’t want them to have anything to do with it – and those people aren’t generally any worse on average than the people who have been Christian.

So, if Christianity actually was true, then that would mean that millions of good and decent people – including, if you remember, my father – were destined for eternal torture. It would mean that some truly awful people were getting away without punishment due to being Christian, even where this was due to the sheer chance of being born into one family rather than another. And it would mean that the Being in charge of the universe was quite happy to let this state of affairs go on rather than plan an even vaguely fair system for the afterlife.

However badly I wanted to be part of a group, I could never, ever feel comfortable with the idea of signing up for a religion based on that belief.

There was, however, a bigger problem here than what I did or didn’t believe; what if it was true? After all, all sorts of terrible things were true despite me/other people not wanting them to be; there seemed no logical reason why this one had to be an exception. Millions of people were convinced of Christianity’s veracity. I couldn’t just assume they were wrong. What if the universe actually was in charge of a god that awful, with that horrific a system for the afterlife? My mind and heart quailed away from the thought.

Since I’ve raised the general topic of The Awfulness Of The Hypothetical Christian God, there are a couple of other points I should probably touch on here. Firstly, you might well be quite legitimately thinking here ‘Yes, and that’s on top of all the other terrible stuff this god is supposed to have done!’ The Christian God is, after all, supposed to be the same god who either sent or commanded various massacres in the earlier part of the Bible before being retconned into a divinely loving being. It doesn’t reflect that well on Younger Me to say that I can’t recall this bothering me that much, but, to be fair, I did already know that at least some of what was in the Bible wasn’t true; I think I managed not to think that much about whether those parts were true or how they would fit with Christianity. I don’t know how justifiable it is in hindsight that that wasn’t an issue for me, but, rightly or wrongly, it wasn’t.

And secondly, there’s what is generally known in theological arguments as The Problem Of Evil; the sheer amount of awfulness that exists in the world not of any god’s making but which, theoretically, an all-powerful god ought to at least be able to stop. I seem to be about the only atheist who’s never been bothered by this. The reason for that was fairly simple if philosophically shaky; I just assumed that, if God did in fact exist, he was bound by some kind of non-interference rule and couldn’t do more than provide emotional support, and all the claims about omnipotence were just something that people made up to make them feel better. I think I might well have got this idea from the mention of the Emperor-Over-Sea in the Narnian books whose mysterious rules constrained Aslan; I’m not sure whether that counts as ironic or not. Either way, this way of looking at things meant that The Problem Of Evil wasn’t one of the things that particularly bothered me during my theological questing.

The Problem Of Hell, however, was another matter. If the Christian God did exist, then the afterlife pretty clearly was his remit. If Christians were right, then millions were doomed and the universe was in the charge of a monster.

So, where did that leave me?

With a major conundrum.

On the one hand, I very much wanted not to have to believe anything so appalling. I was horrified at the idea of the universe being in charge of someone who would blithely let millions of people go off to eternal hellfire. I desperately wanted to believe that that wasn’t true.

On the other hand, I already knew I didn’t want to be the sort of person who based their beliefs on what they wanted to be true, rather than being honest with themselves about what the evidence showed. And I recognised that there was a real danger of me doing that here. If I rejected Christianity flat-out, it wouldn’t be because I had good reason to believe it false; it would be because I had good reason to want to believe it false, and that wasn’t the same thing. More subtly, I could see how I might let my feelings bias how I weighed up the evidence; even if I made a show of looking at Christianity, it would be all too easy to reject evidence I didn’t want to see or accept evidence against it that was unconvincing. I didn’t want to become someone who would do that; intellectual honesty was already something I valued highly.

And so I chose the only fair way that I could see through this conundrum; to look into Christianity properly, rather than accepting it blindly through fear or rejecting it out of hand for the same reason. I determined to look at the evidence for both sides and weigh it up as fairly as possible, focusing on assessing it on its own strengths or weaknesses rather than on whether it pointed where I wanted it to. If I genuinely felt, on doing that, that a particular piece of evidence pointed against Christianity, then fair enough; but it had to be for that reason, rather than because I wanted it to point that way. If I felt evidence pointed towards the truth of Christianity, towards the truth of a god so callous that he would abandon all non-Christians to eternal hellfire… well, that was a prospect so horrific I could barely contemplate it, but I still recognised that, if I really felt the evidence pointed that way, then the honest thing for me to do would be to accept that. Whatever conclusion I reached, I wanted to come by it honestly.

All this makes it sound as though I had some big determined moment of sitting down and vowing myself to this quest. As far as I remember, it was actually a decision I drifted into gradually. However, this was why I applied myself to learning about Christianity in the way I did; because I was so strongly motivated not to believe in it that this made me even more determined to weigh it up fairly.

‘Deciphering The Gospels Proves Jesus Never Existed’ review: Chapter Two, Part Two

‘Deciphering the Gospels’, by R. G. Price, argues the case for Jesus mythicism, which is the view that Jesus never really existed on earth but was a mythical figure in the same way as Hercules or Dionysus. (The author is not the same person as Robert Price, also a Jesus mythicist author.) I’m an atheist who holds the opposing (and mainstream) view that Jesus did exist, as a normal, non-divine, human being. I’m therefore reviewing Price’s book to discuss his arguments and my reasons for disagreeing.

The first post in this book review is here. All subsequent posts will be linked at the end of that post as they go up.

In the previous post, I discussed the examples Price gives of teachings or approaches he believes Mark to have derived from Paul. In this one, I’ll discuss some of Price’s other statements in the chapter, followed by a general look at the story so far.

While we have seen that many of the scenes in the Gospel called Mark are based on literary allusions to the Hebrew scriptures, the Jesus character himself is based on Paul. It is clear from analysis of the Gospel called Mark that the writer of that story had read the letters of Paul and used them as inspiration for the character and teachings of Jesus.

My first thought when I read that was ‘Well, why not just write the allegory about Paul?’ According to Price’s theory, Mark was trying to write an entirely fictional account purely for allegorical purposes. If he wanted to fictionalise a person based on Paul’s life, seems like the obvious thing would be to write a fictional version of Paul, rather than of Jesus. Price has stated in a comment on here that it was to give Mark’s message the greater authority of coming from Jesus; but in that case, why portray Jesus as a flesh-and-blood person at all? According to Price’s theory, Mark and the audience for whom he was writing believed Jesus to be a spiritual heavenly being, who would surely have had more authority than an ordinary flesh-and-blood being; why this whole business of rewriting him as a human, rather than just portraying him as visiting Earth to make his announcements? I still can’t see how Mark’s motives, under Price’s theory, add up in a plausible or coherent way.

On further consideration, I realised there was a bigger problem; how would Mark have read this many of Paul’s letters in the first place? We’re used to having them collected handily together as part of the New Testament, but that wouldn’t happen until long after the time Mark wrote his gospel. At the time Mark was writing, the individual letters would have been in the possession of the widely scattered communities to which Paul had sent them. The passages that Price identifies as those on which Mark supposedly based parts of his gospel include extracts from letters originally sent to Rome, Corinth, Philippi, and Galatia. I’ve checked a map of Paul’s journeys to get an idea of how far apart these places actually were; my rough estimate is that a journey taking in all of them would be upwards of a thousand miles. In those days, that would have been a massive undertaking, complicated further by the difficulties of locating each community. It’s not impossible that someone could have made that mammoth journey in order to read each of Paul’s letters, but it does seem pretty unlikely. So, while I’m quite happy with the idea that Mark was influenced by Pauline teaching and by some of his writing, I don’t think Price’s argument about the extent to which Mark had supposedly read Paul’s writing really holds up.

By the way, I didn’t realise this until I’d already made notes on which of Price’s examples I did or didn’t agree with. When I did realise the problem with Price’s claim here, I thought I’d better go back and look at the four examples for which I agreed that Price was probably correct about Pauline derivation; after all, if it turned out that they were from letters sent to different communities then I’d have some contradictory conclusions and I’d have to rethink. What I actually found, however, was that all four examples were based on passages from 1 Corinthians. So, there we go; we do have evidence (hardly watertight, but fairly good) that, whoever Mark actually was, he read at least that letter, and thus was associated at some point with the Corinthians community. I’m guessing that probably at least someone in the field of biblical scholarship has noticed this before, but it was new information for me and I found it interesting.

Thus, if Mark’s Jesus is based on the writings of Paul, then Mark’s Jesus has no relationship to any real person whatsoever, because according to Paul himself, Paul’s “knowledge” of Jesus came from no one. [quote of Galatians 1:11 – 17]

That doesn’t logically follow. It’s perfectly possible that Mark could have used Paul as one of multiple sources for information, basing parts of his gospel on Paul’s letters and part on other sources. (In fact, this is what Price is also claiming happened, as he believes Mark also drew on the Jewish scriptures.) If Mark’s Jesus could be shown to be based entirely on Paul’s letters then that would be a different matter, but that isn’t what Price is trying to claim. Since Paul and his followers believed that Paul had also seen Jesus and received direct communication from him (they believed this had happened via supernatural apparition post-resurrection, but this was completely real from their viewpoint), I see no reason why Mark wouldn’t have drawn on information from both Paul and people who knew Jesus during his lifetime.

By the way, that Galatians passage always strikes me as a pretty ironic one for mythicists to quote. The mythical arguments that I’ve read (including Price’s) all put huge emphasis on Paul’s lack of interest in Jesus’s earthly life and his belief that Jesus was some kind of pre-existent heavenly being. But, since we know from Paul’s own words that he was not preaching the theology of the previously-existing group of Jesus-followers, why should his beliefs about whether or not Jesus led an earthly life be relevant evidence as to whether Jesus actually did lead an earthly life? Paul’s beliefs about Jesus seem to have been highly tangential to reality.

Most of the rest of the chapter is devoted to Price’s examples, so I’ll now skip ahead to the last paragraph of the chapter. Here, Price speculates on Mark’s motive for writing his gospel. Now, this is quite an important point for any mythicist theory, since mythicism has to explain how, within less than a century, we could plausibly get from ‘Jesus was a purely spiritual heavenly being’ to ‘Jesus was born on Earth; here are multiple detailed stories about his earthly life’. Here’s what Price gives us:

Paul’s message was one of harmony between Jews and Gentiles. This message was apparently in conflict with the message of James and other members of the Jesus cult, and with the Jewish leadership. I think the writer of Mark was a follower of Paul, who saw in the outcome of the war proof that Paul had been right. I think the writer’s view was, “See, if they had listened to Paul none of this would have happened”, or perhaps, “This was destined to happen, in accordance with Paul’s gospel.” It was the defeat of the Jews and the destruction of the temple that precipitated the need to defend Paul’s vision.

Now, Price might be able to make this work as a plausible theory, but he’s got some problems to overcome.

Firstly, it’s based on some unsubstantiated premises: that ‘harmony between Jews and Gentiles’ was a major message of Paul’s, that this was an issue on which he clashed significantly with the Jerusalem church, and that Mark’s gospel also clearly presents this point. Unfortunately, Price doesn’t make the case for any of these premises. (I have a niggling feeling that the problem might be Price having interpreted the initial disagreement over whether Gentiles joining the movement had to follow Jewish law as a ‘harmony’ issue. If so, then in the first place that’s not actually what ‘harmony’ means, and in the second it seems to be a moot point, since Paul was assuring his followers that that little disagreement had been sorted out in his favour.)

Secondly, there’s the question of why an author whose primary motive was defending Paul’s message against the church would fall short of giving us any kind of clearcut message on the one subject on which Paul certainly did have a significant, and as far as we know unresolved, clash with the church; the question of whether Jewish law had been rendered obsolete. While a discussion of Mark’s approach to this question would take too long to go into in detail here, he at no point shows Jesus making a clear statement on the issue (even though he could quite easily have put Paul’s views into Jesus’s mouth), and, in the many arguments Jesus is portrayed as having with Pharisees, Jesus is in fact in each case taking a position completely in line with established Jewish law. All this makes sense if Mark wanted to gloss over the differences between Paul’s views and the church’s, but is at least somewhat odd if his purpose was to tell the church how wrong they’d been to disagree with Paul; in that case it would seem more likely that the differences would be highlighted rather than glossed over, with gMark’s Jesus making clear statements on the matter.

All of these might well be surmountable problems; I don’t think they’re fundamental flaws in the theory, and there might well be good answers I haven’t thought of. However, this is an area of his theory that Price definitely needs to develop a bit further.

 

Conclusion: The theory so far

This completes the second chapter, which means we’ve also completed the part of the book that deals with Price’s views on the gospel of Mark. By this point, according to Price, we’re supposed to have been provided with ‘overwhelming concrete evidence that the Gospel of Mark is an entirely fictional work’, which in turn is the cornerstone for his whole theory. So, I’ll pause for just a moment here to take stock.

I agree with Price on some points (something that I think is worth mentioning here, because it gets rather lost in the disagreements). I agree with Price that there is a lot more going on in Mark’s writing than just some sort of simple record of what he’d heard about Jesus; I agree that multiple parts of his gospel allude to/are based on the Jewish scriptures; and I agree that his theology was in large part Pauline in nature and that this comes through in the way he presents Jesus’s story and teachings. I think that a convincing argument can be made for all of these points.

The problem I find with Price’s theories is that he takes these ideas much too far; he is, as the saying has it, making too much stew from one oyster. Firstly, his criteria for what he’ll categorise as an example of derivation from a scriptural or Pauline source are so vague that he’s categorising far too many scenes as being ‘clearly’ or ‘obviously’ due to derivation on Mark’s part, even where the arguments for this being the case are in fact extremely weak. Secondly, he’s concluding that, because Mark is using Jesus’s story as a symbolic way of getting his messages across, this must make the entire story fictional.

In fact, even if Price’s arguments about the extent of Mark’s derivation from other sources did stand up, it still wouldn’t follow that Mark had invented the earthly life of Jesus in its entirety. For one thing, there’s no logic to that claim; it is perfectly possible for an author to use a story based on a real person as a device for symbolically making a particular point (for example, ‘L’Alouette’, one of the plays I studied for French A-level, does exactly this with regard to Joan of Arc). And, for another thing, we actually see that Mark was prepared to do this with a historical character, because he does this with John the Baptist. He writes about him in ways that, as Price pointed out in Chapter 1, are fairly clearly symbolic (presenting him as an Elijah-figure), yet we know that John the Baptist existed, because there’s a long passage about him in Josephus’s work. So there’s not even a question over whether Mark would write about a real figure with a real earthly life in a symbolised way; we know he would, because he did. And so we can’t conclude that Mark’s use of Jesus’s story as a vehicle for symbolic messages means that Mark had no knowledge of an earthly Jesus.

It’s fair to say that gMark is too mythologised and slanted to give us particularly reliable information about the details of Jesus’s life, and also fair to say that, if we only had gMark and no other evidence, then we simply wouldn’t be able to tell whether Mark was writing about a real character or a fictional one. But Price has unfortunately fallen far short of his claim to have given us ‘overwhelming concrete evidence’ that the book is entirely fictional.

The Proselytising Thread

The question has come up of how to react to proselytisation attempts on my blog. Yannoupoika, one of the contributors to the recent discussions on here about abortion, has been making a number of statements and claims about the religious belief that he follows (Christianity, if you were wondering). Another commenter objected to the discussion of this subject in a non-religious discussion on an atheist blog.

My thoughts on this are:

  1. I’m happy with people trying to convert me. This is not because I have the least desire to be converted, but because I enjoy the ensuing discussions.
  2. Most people, from what I can see, do not feel this way. Therefore, if a thread about something else starts filling up with debate over apologetics/religion, probably most or all of the other people who wanted to read the thread won’t want to read the religious debate. I know you can’t please all of the people all of the time, but it seems a shame to spoil a thread for a high percentage of the people who want to read it.

And thus, to reconcile 1 and 2, I’m creating this post; a comment thread specifically for such discussions. You can join in with an existing discussion, or bring a discussion here if it’s broken out in another thread as happened this time, or jump right on in and start one. Or, if you prefer, ignore it completely and read other bits of my blog instead.

So… if you want to have a shot at convincing me that your god is real/that I should convert to your religion, or if you want to respond to someone who’s raised the subject in another thread, go right ahead! Just take a few minutes to read over the rules and guidelines, which are thus:

Rules

  1. Show respect for the religious beliefs of others, including agnosticism/atheism. No rudeness, no dissing, no sneering, no insults or name-calling. You might have excellent reasons for having a low opinion of someone else’s belief system and, if so, I hope you find a good place to vent about them, but this ain’t it. Be polite or take it elsewhere.
  2. No assumptions about why anyone believes/disbelieves what they do. If you’re wondering whether someone’s belief is due to an ulterior motive, ask them, don’t tell them.
  3. Be careful about accusations of lying. A lie is a deliberately false statement made with the intent to deceive. An unintentional inaccuracy is not a lie. A difference in opinion is not a lie. This happens to be something I feel quite strongly about, so… if you don’t have reasonably good evidence that someone meant a false statement to be deliberately deceptive, don’t throw out accusations of lying. By all means call them out on the inaccuracy, but do it without throwing out unfounded accusations.
  4. I reserve the right to delete comments in whole or in part if they break these rules. If I do so, I will indicate in the thread that I’ve done so. I would prefer not to do so and will try where possible to keep to warnings instead, but don’t abuse that slack.

Guidelines

These, as you can deduce from the fact that they’re in a separate section, are not rules; you won’t be deleted or barred for not following them. They’re my thoughts on how any discussions can be more interesting/productive/coherent.

  1. There really isn’t much point just making statements about your beliefs and expecting that to have an effect. For example, if your argument consists solely of statements such as “We’re all sinners but Jesus died to save you!”, then there is not going to be much I can say other than “I get that you believe that. I don’t. Have a nice day.” Which is going to be rather dull as discussions go, so you’ll be better off thinking of some actual arguments, questions, or both.
  2. Massive long infodumps about your faith will, in practice, be a bit hard for me to answer, so, for example, C&Ping chapters from your apologetics book or asking for my opinion on an entire website are probably not going to get very far as discussion goes; I’m not going to have time to write lengthy essays. (Admittedly this will not necessarily stop me, given my long history of getting sucked into answering things I really didn’t have time to answer. However, you’ll have a better chance of having your comments answered if they stick to a reasonably short number of points.)
  3. I’m not that interested in abstruse philosophical arguments. That’s just my personal preference. If you still want to make them… whatever, go ahead, I’ll try to answer if I can.
  4. If you try to convert me to your religion, the resulting discussion is likely to end up including reasons why I disagree with you. If you don’t want to hear those, think twice about whether you want to start the discussion.
  5. If you post here as a way of bringing a debate from another thread here, it’ll help if you say that that’s what you’re doing, put a link back to the original debate in your comment, and then put a link to your comment in the original thread. That way, anyone reading the discussion here knows the context of what you’re replying to, and whomever you replied to in the original thread will know where you’ve taken it.

I think that’s it, although I’ll amend the rules or guidelines if anything comes up that I haven’t thought of. Play nicely, everyone… and have fun!

How to make a stone so heavy that you can’t lift it

Most people will recognise the above reference. It’s to the infamous Omnipotence Paradox; can God (or other allegedly omnipotent being, if you prefer; when my father introduced me to it as a child, it was by way of Mr Impossible from the Mr Men books) make a stone so heavy that he can’t lift it? Various answers have been put forward to this over the years; one of them, several years ago, came from my daughter.

We were at dinner. I can’t remember at all how old my daughter was, except that it was some years back and she’s now twelve. Maybe seven? Maybe not. I forget how this came up, but my husband decided to ask the children the version of the paradox that comes up in Babylon 5: can God make a puzzle so difficult that he can’t solve it? (The character in the show includes that it’s ‘us’; humans and, given the show’s context, assumedly intelligent aliens as well.)

“Well,” Katie suggested, “he could make the puzzle so that it changes him so that then he can’t solve it.”

My husband and I exchanged the sort of look you exchange when your primary-school-aged child has just solved a centuries-old philosophical puzzle. (On the unlikely off-chance that you have not personally had occasion to encounter that look, it’s basically “Did that just happen?”) He asked her the more traditional version of the puzzle, and, of course, she figured out how her answer would fit; God designs a rock that has the property of causing him to lose the ability to lift the rock. I don’t want to brag, but my daughter is pretty darned smart.

Cold Case Christianity For Kids, mother and daughter team review: Chapter Eight, Part 2

My eleven-year-old daughter and I, both atheists, are reviewing J. Warner Wallace’s children’s apologetics book ‘Cold Case Christianity For Kids’. Links to all posts in the series are collected at the end of this introductory post.

I assumed a few things about this book as I went along, and one of them was that the final-chapter Solving Of The Skateboard Mystery would be done by actual detective work from the cadets. Sure, I wasn’t expecting Miss Marple or Hercule Poirot, and I also figured Jeffries would probably have to guide them with some leading questions… but I did expect that resolution would come in some kind of ultimate burst of discovering and/or connecting clues to give the cadets the answer. Not only was this the one bit of any actual detective work that the cadets got to do, but there was still the matter of the witness statement that Jeffries – despite promptly ignoring it for the next fortnight – did stress the cadets should be closely analysing.

Well… here’s how it actually went down.

Jeffries tells the cadets that they’re going to ‘wrap up the mystery of the skateboard’. He opens the door. Ta-daaaa! Lacey walks in! Jeffries tells them ‘”As it turns out, Lacey is the key to solving our mystery.”‘ Insert Character suddenly realises that Daniel’s – and therefore Lacey’s – surname is Bolan, making Lacey’s initials LB, the initials they found on the skateboard. Insert Character yells out ‘”You owned the skateboard!”‘ Lacey agrees. Ta-da. Mystery solved.

So… I guess technically I was not completely wrong. After all, the Insert Character does have one ‘Aha, so that is what that clue means’ moment. But:

a) this happens only once Jeffries has literally put the answer slap bang in front of them, and

b) this happens only because Insert Character is friends with Daniel and thus knows the family’s surname.

So, none of the other cadets – you remember them, even though Wallace doesn’t? The children from other schools who are supposedly also in this class even though none of them ever, ever gets named or says anything? – had a look-in here. And it would have been so easy for Jeffries to do that differently; all he had to do was to start Lacey’s witness statement off with a ‘State your full name for the record’. Apart from anything else, surely getting the witness’s full details is normal practice for a witness statement?

But, nope. Didn’t happen.

Daniel wants to know why Lacey didn’t say anything earlier. I’d assumed that this was because she didn’t want her illicit skateboard-riding to get back to her mother. But… nope. Instead, we get this:

“Because Detective Jeffries told me not to,” she explains. “Once he solved it, he asked me to play along and let you guys try to figure it out on your own.[…]”

Where. To. Start.

1. I can quite understand that Jeffries would want the solving of this case to take a bit more effort than Daniel happening to examine the board at home and Lacey walking in and saying “Hey, that’s my old skateboard!”. However, this goes further; Lacey’s actually kept quiet about her involvement when explicitly asked if she knows anything about the board, to the point of downright deceptiveness. Her response when Daniel asked her about it was “I’ve seen it before… At least, I think I have.” The first statement was technically true, but the second one wasn’t; she knew perfectly well that she’d seen it, because she’d owned it.

Which means that the one bit of detective work the cadets got to do during this entire fake cadet class – solving the mystery – has been mucked up for them by Jeffries deliberately suppressing evidence. Heck… even if he didn’t want Lacey handing Daniel the solution on a plate, the obvious thing for him to do would have been to lead the class through analysing that damn witness statement and help them see what further questions to ask. It would have been great teaching and really interesting for the cadets. Bloody hell, Jeffries. You couldn’t even let your class have that much.

2. It’s disturbing that Lacey managed to lie to her brother so smoothly when he first asked her about the skateboard. Did Jeffries coach her in this?

3. How and when did Jeffries solve the case? He apparently managed it before Daniel first asked Lacey about the skateboard, and that happened between sessions 3 and 4, so he managed it fairly early on. And Jeffries would have had no obvious reason to ask Lacey; Daniel didn’t ask her because any clues had pointed to her at that stage, he asked her purely because she happened to be someone he knew who’d been at the school at around the right time. The other people the cadets have spoken to – the custodian and the person at the skateboard shop – didn’t mention anyone else coming round asking questions about the board (though, who knows, maybe Jeffries told them to keep quiet as well).

4. Did it not occur to Daniel at any point that, if he was looking for a girl who’d been at the school several years ago who had the initials ‘LB’, there was someone right there in his family who fitted the bill?

5. Could we all just take a minute to reflect on the irony of the fact that, within minutes of Jeffries assuring us that this clearly wasn’t a conspiracy, we find out that he was in fact conspiring with Lacey?

 

Sigh. Why am I even shocked by any of this? Jeffries told the cadets they’d discover the truth about the skateboard if they kept searching; but what he actually did was to give them the evidence he wanted, when he wanted to. I have no idea why I didn’t see that coming.

Jesus mythicism vs. Jesus historicity: a reply to R. G. Price

A few weeks ago, I wrote a post about Jesus mythicism (the belief that Jesus never existed as a real person), explaining my initial reason for coming down on the ‘historicity’ side of that particular debate. Rather to my surprise, it went on to get more comments than I’ve had on any other post in over thirteen years of blogging. (In fairness, that is not a terribly high bar, but I was still really pleased about it.) Thank you to all those of you who commented and joined in the discussion. I replied to a lot of the comments but did leave several comments unanswered as the thread seemed to have come to a halt and I didn’t know whether anyone was still reading; if yours was one of those and you would still like it answered, do please let me know and I’ll try to do so.

Anyway, I’m restarting this as a new person has just joined the comment thread; mythicist R.G. Price (who, confusingly, is a different mythicist from Robert Price). R.G. had a long comment with a lot of questions, so I decided that, rather than trying to reply in comments, it would be better to write a new post.

Why don’t the earliest writings about Jesus describe who he was as a person?

The earliest writings about Jesus were written by someone who not only became a follower of Jesus only after his death, but showed almost no interest in hearing about Jesus’s life; he based his beliefs not on teachings from the existing group of Jesus-followers but on revelations he believed he was getting from Jesus directly, and he spread those beliefs far and wide. I completely agree that this was a somewhat bizarre state of affairs to have come about, but, nevertheless, we know from Paul’s own writings that this was what happened.

This being the case, we wouldn’t expect Paul to have described who Jesus was as a person, regardless of whether Jesus actually had been a person or not. Paul simply doesn’t seem to have been interested in Jesus as a person. In Paul’s writings, his focus is on his image of Jesus as a magic mechanism for all-purpose forgiveness of sins.

Why don’t the earliest writings about Jesus convey any of his teachings?

Same reason.

Why didn’t Jesus produce any writings of his own?

He lived and died in a culture where the majority of his society were not functionally literate, where oral teaching had huge importance, where ink and paper were expensive luxuries, and where the printing press wasn’t even a twinkle in an inventor’s eye yet. If someone in such a society wanted to get a message out to as many people as possible as quickly as possible, their best bet for doing that was to travel around and do a lot of public preaching, since that would reach significantly more people for the time spent. On top of that, we don’t even know whether Jesus himself had had formal training or practice in writing; in that day and age, it’s quite possible that he didn’t.

If Jesus couldn’t read and write, then why would people, in a culture that highly valued the reading and writing of scripture, worship such a person for their “teachings”?

I don’t know of anyone who was worshipping Jesus for his teachings. Paul created a theology in which Jesus was a magical sacrifice sent by God to wipe clean everyone’s sins, and this evolved over time into a theology that believed that Jesus was part of God and thus worshipped him on that basis.

Why would people think that a person, who presumably didn’t perform miracles or rise from the dead, was “the Lord Jesus Christ”, an eternal being with godly powers?

That’s a few different questions rolled into one:

Why did they believe him to be the Messiah (Christ)? That’s not hard to see; the Jews were desperate for a Messiah, and any apparently good contender for the post would get a lot of followers out of pure wishful thinking. Jesus was clearly a highly charismatic and convincing speaker. It would actually have been stranger if he hadn’t had followers who believed him to be the Messiah. It is strange that Paul kept up the title in writing about him despite having come to a completely different set of beliefs about him, but it’s still less strange that Paul would keep an existing title for him than that someone would so utterly and completely reinterpret the concept of Messiahship from scratch, which is what would be required for Jesus to be mythical.

Why did they call him Lord? Well, being the Messiah effectively meant you were the rightful king (it was part of the job description) and that you were sent by God, so, for the people who believed he was the Messiah, it probably would have seemed appropriate to address him as ‘Lord’. It probably would have seemed even more appropriate to Paul, whose new version of the theology seems to have involved seeing Jesus as an amazing being imbued with wondrous powers.

How did people move from seeing him as a human being to seeing him as an eternal being with godly powers? The full change to seeing him in this way seems to have happened gradually over time, but a significant shift seems to have happened with Paul, who, based on his letters, seems to have gone off on a complete tangent with his beliefs about Jesus, coming up with a new version of belief that wasn’t anything to do with traditional beliefs about the Messiah.

If people did think that this person was some eternal Lord, then why didn’t they record anything about him or things that he said that convinced them that he was this eternal all-powerful Lord?

Huh? Innumerable Christians have been recording precisely that for the past two millennia. You might need to clarify that question.

Why would someone’s brother, who grew up with him and likely had fights with him as a child and saw him get in trouble, get sick, etc. think that he was a perfect all-powerful deity – the only being in existence capable of bringing justice to the world?

Do we have any good evidence that any of Jesus’s brothers thought that (as opposed to later Christians believing it)?

Why does the letter to the Hebrews “quote” Jesus by quoting from scriptures and give no details about this person’s real life?

Most likely the author followed Paul’s influence in focusing on Jesus in his role of magic sin-erasing device rather than showing interest in him as a person. That, of course, is conjecture; but what we do know is that, whatever the author’s reason, it does not seem to have been a lack of belief in a Jesus who really walked the earth as a flesh-and-blood person.

‘Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things’: Heb 2:14

‘Therefore he had to be made like his brothers in every respect…’: Heb 2:17

‘For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathise with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are’: Heb 4:15

‘In the days of his flesh…’: Heb 5:7

‘For it is evident that our Lord was descended from Judah’: Heb 7:14

‘…by the the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh’: Heb 10:19 – 20

That’s a half-dozen statements that are very hard to explain away if the author of Hebrews didn’t believe Jesus had lived on earth.

Why does the letter to the Hebrews say explicitly that Jesus is a heavenly High Priest?

The letter to the Hebrews was written after Jesus’s death. Regardless of whether his followers thought he’d lived on earth prior to that death or not, they’d have believed him to be in heaven at that point!

Why does Paul talk repeatedly about Jesus being a divine mystery?

If you give me the quotes you’re thinking of, I’ll see what they sound like in context. Again, given the number of times Paul makes a comment about Jesus being ‘born of a woman‘ or ‘according to the flesh‘ or ‘the seed of David‘, or comparable to Adam as a man, or about him having brothers, the answer doesn’t seem to be ‘Because Paul believed Jesus only ever existed as a spiritual being in a cosmic realm’.

Why doesn’t Paul attribute any of his teachings to Jesus?

Huh? He does. Did you mean, why does he only attribute his teachings to post-resurrection revelations from Jesus rather than to things he’d learned from the apostles? If so, then I refer you back to the first point.

Why would Paul think his teachings were better than, or even on par with, people who had personally known Jesus and learned his teachings directly from his mouth?

Paul believed that he’d learned his teachings directly from Jesus as well. Sure, he believed it was happening by revelations from Jesus up in heaven, but – given the way he changed his life over these revelations – I think we can reasonably assume that he fully believed, or at least had managed to convince himself, that he was genuinely receiving teachings from a resurrected and heavenly Jesus.

Why does the Gospel of Mark use so many literary sources?

Probably because, as you’ve just pointed out above, scriptural sources were extremely important to people in that day and age.

Why does the Gospel of Mark use teachings of Paul as Jesus’s teachings?

Because that’s how Paul presented many of his teachings to the communities he founded (remember, he believed they came directly from Jesus via revelation, and presented them as such).

Why does the Gospel of Mark portray the disciples so poorly?

This probably goes back to the division in beliefs between the communities founded by Paul, and the original church run by former disciples in Jerusalem. The gospels seem to have been written outside Judaea, meaning it’s likely they came from communities who originated from Paul and were using theology that was more Pauline in nature and hence differed from the theology taught by the original Jerusalem church on some key points. It’s not hard to imagine that this would have been pretty awkward for the churches. Some of the differences seem to have been harmonised or glossed over, but some of them seem to have been dealt with by portraying the disciples as a bunch of bumbling fools who constantly misunderstood what Jesus’s mission was really about.

Why does every single story about Jesus share text with the Gospel of Mark?

Because later authors used gMark as one of their sources.

I could go on, but really, all of these questions, and many more, need reasonable answers in order for the idea that the Jesus of Christianity is based on the life of a real person to have any plausibility.

On the other hand, there is really only one question that needs to be answered for the scenario that the Jesus of Christianity isn’t based on a real person to be plausible and that question is:

How do you explain the five or six short passages in the letters of Paul that suggest Jesus was a real person?

Only one question… are you kidding me?? What about…

Why does Josephus, in a line universally accepted as genuine by Josephan scholars, describe one man as being ‘the brother of Jesus called Christ’?

Why does Tacitus mention a Christus who founded a sect named after him and who was executed by Pontius Pilate, describing this sect in terms hostile enough that this is extremely unlikely to be information he got from Christians?

What precedent is there for anyone writing allegorical stories about a heavenly figure that are so detailed they mention fictitious family members and a place where he allegedly grew up? How often, in that culture, is that known to have happened? Based on that answer, what are the estimated chances that multiple different people in a relatively small sect would choose to do this about the same figure?

What is the explanation for the passages I quoted above from Hebrews indicating a belief in a human flesh-and-blood Jesus of physical descent?

Why do two of the gospel writers describe Jesus as coming from Nazareth, even though this was clearly very awkward for them to the point where they had to make up detailed and implausible stories explaining how he had really come to be born in Bethlehem and not Nazareth?

Why do the gospel writers all name a powerful Roman as being the person who ordered Jesus’s crucifixion, even though they clearly realised the risks of this and took great pains to gloss over and explain away this part of the story as much as possible?

All of which is on top of the multiple passages in Paul that fit with historicity rather than mythicism; and ‘five or six’ is an underestimate there. I’ve been through the undisputed letters and count 11. (That isn’t counting the ‘killed by the Jews’ passage on 1 Thessalonians, which I left off the list as there are reasonable unrelated grounds for suspecting it to be an interpolation.)

And, yes, it’s possible to look at any individual one of those examples in isolation and say, maybe this one was an interpolation or we’re interpreting it wrong or there’s some other explanation we’re not aware of. But the more such examples there are, the more difficult it is to explain all of them away. When we’re looking at needing this many convoluted and improbable explanations to sustain a theory, then that theory has become overwhelmingly unlikely and needs to be discarded.

Cold Case Christianity For Kids, mother and daughter team review – Chapter Six, part 2

My ten-year-old daughter and I, both atheists, are teaming up to review J. Warner Wallace’s children’s apologetics book ‘Cold Case Christianity For Kids’. Links to all posts in the series are collected at the end of this introductory post.

Several chapters back, in response to Jason’s question about how we know that the gospels are ‘real eyewitness testimonies instead of legends or myths or something’, Jeffries promised that we’d get a whole session on that topic. (Although only, apparently, after we’d spent the then-current session discussing the gospels on the assumption that they were reliable accounts, so that raises some concerning questions about Wallace’s approach to evaluating evidence.)

Given the emphasis on the theme of eyewitness statements in this chapter, I think this is supposed to be the session to which he was referring. However, this session only covers the authorship of the gospel normally known as Mark… which is not meant to be an eyewitness testimony. While Church tradition does have it that two of the gospels (‘Matthew’ and ‘John’) are written by eyewitnesses, there are no such claims for ‘Mark’, which was supposedly written by someone who’d obtained his information second-hand, from the apostle Peter. (Of course, if that’s true it would still be potentially good evidence, but it wouldn’t be an eyewitness testimony.) So, if this is supposed to be the promised explanation of how we know the gospels are eyewitness testimonies, then it’s a pretty inadequate attempt at it.

Oh, well. I don’t know for sure that this is the session Wallace/Jeffries was referring to, and there are two more chapters left after this one, so it is theoretically possible that he actually had a different session in mind which is still to come. I’m willing to give him the benefit of at least some doubt.

Before getting on to what Wallace/Jeffries has to say about the authorship of the gospel of Mark (which I’ll henceforward refer to by the abbreviation gMark, to save typing time), I’ll give a quick general rundown on the subject for anyone who wants it. (Thanks here go to historian and blogger Matthew Ferguson for his post Why Scholars Doubt The Traditional Authors Of The Gospels, which was a useful source for a couple of these points.)

The author of gMark, like those of the other gospels, does not identify himself in the text of his work. The earliest information the Church has on gMark’s authorship comes from the early church bishop Papias, who probably wrote some time between 95 and 120 CE (AD). Papias’s actual works have been lost, but one of the few quotes of his work that we have from later authors is about gMark, and states that it was written by Peter’s interpreter Mark, who wrote down what he remembered of Peter’s teaching as accurately as he could. This information is backed up by two other authors from the second century; Irenaeus, in the third volume of his work ‘Against Heresies’, states that ‘Mark, the disciple and interpreter of Peter, did also hand down to us in writing what had been preached by Peter’, and a few of the quotes we have from Clement of Alexandria’s work state that Mark was a follower and companion of Peter who wrote his gospel at the request of some of Peter’s other followers.

(There is also a tradition that this Mark was the John Mark mentioned a few times in Acts. I can’t actually find anything in any of the above quotes to specify whether this is the case; as far as I can see, it’s plausible that these authors were talking about a different Mark and other people made an understandable but incorrect assumption that they were referring to John Mark. However, while this is an interesting question, I don’t think it’s a terribly important one; if gMark was written by someone very familiar with Peter’s teachings, then that’s important information regardless of whether the author was John Mark or not. Wallace also doesn’t raise this issue and I won’t go into it further.)

The question is, of course, whether Papias, Irenaeus and Clement were actually right. All of them were writing decades after gMark was written, and we don’t know how reliable their information was. Papias got his information from someone known only as ‘the presbyter John’, and we don’t know who this person was or where he got his information. We have no idea where the other two got their information; it might, for all we know, trace back to Papias, or perhaps to a source of similarly uncertain reliability. (Of note is that both Papias and Irenaeus also described the gospel of Matthew as being a work originally written in Hebrew… but scholarship has since established that Matthew was originally written in Greek. If those two made a mistake that basic regarding one gospel, we can’t count on what they say about others.)

On top of this, it’s been noted that gMark makes various geographical and cultural errors that would be unlikely in the writings of someone who was a close follower of Peter. (For example, he depicts Jesus as travelling from Tyre to the Sea of Galilee via Sidon, which was, in fact, in the opposite direction from the Sea of Galilee for someone starting from Tyre; he depicts Jews as calling out the phrase ‘our father David’ when in fact David, while a highly important figure in Jewish history, was not considered one of the Jewish fathers and wouldn’t have been referred to as such.) Also, his quotes from the Jewish scriptures come from the Greek version, not from the original Hebrew that Peter would have been expected to use.

The result of all this is that it is now the general consensus of scholars that Papias and co. probably had it wrong; that, whoever wrote gMark, it probably wasn’t someone who’d received his information directly from Peter.

I’m going to add here, by the way, that this does seem to me to be – ironically – a better conclusion as far as the Church’s point of view is concerned. After all, one notable aspect of gMark is that it originally did not contain any actual accounts of people seeing a resurrected Jesus. (Some versions do have a short paragraph about resurrection appearances, but these aren’t in the earliest copies we have and have long since been established as being later additions. The actual gospel ended with the women learning from an unnamed man at the empty tomb that Jesus had risen, then leaving in fear.) Yet, from the accounts we have of the resurrection appearances from other sources, Peter was supposedly one of the key witnesses. If gMark really is the comprehensive and reliable report of Peter’s teachings that Papias tells us, surely the fact that this doesn’t include any reports of post-resurrection appearances should be rather awkward for the Church?

In any case… back to the book.

I think Wallace actually ran into a bit of a conundrum in writing this bit. On the one hand, he has this whole structure of focusing on one police-related theme for each chapter and he really wanted the theme of this chapter to be eyewitness statements. On the other hand, the subject he actually wanted to write about was the authorship of a gospel that wasn’t written by an eyewitness.

His method for resolving this conundrum was to have Jeffries claim to the cadets that, since the gospel was based on Peter’s teachings, it actually counts as Peter’s eyewitness statement.

I realise that Wallace genuinely does know a lot more about the whole subject of witnesses and statements than I do and thus it is actually possible that I’m wrong and he’s right here, but… surely an eyewitness statement has to be the words of an eyewitness? Seems to me that, even if he and the Church are right here and Mark actually was Peter’s close follower/interpreter, the gospel would still at best be Mark’s eyewitness statement about Peter’s teaching. (Since it’s been formalised and anonymised in the writing, I’m not sure it would even count as that much. I couldn’t find a definition of eyewitness statements for the US, which is where Wallace works and writes, but I found a page from the UK about eyewitness statements that specified that they have to include a description of what the witness actually saw or heard. Any US police officers or lawyers reading this who can comment?)

On top of that, of course, there’s the fact that the gospel includes scenes for which Peter wasn’t present. Even if the Church is right about Mark being a follower of Peter’s, those particular scenes can only be third-hand at best.

Jason, I was pleased to see, is likewise dubious:

“Why isn’t it just called the gospel of Peter then?” asks Jason.

“Because Mark was Peter’s ‘scribe’—he wrote down Peter’s teaching, so he’s the actual author.” Jeffries can tell that Jason isn’t satisfied with that answer.

And rightly so, IMO. I mean, isn’t it a contradiction to say that Mark is the author but it’s Peter’s eyewitness statement? If someone other than the eyewitness is the author, then surely by definition it’s not an eyewitness statement. I can’t see that one standing up in court, Jeffries.

However, turns out Jason is unsatisfied for a different reason; he wants to know how Jeffries can be sure that this gospel is in fact based on Peter’s information. In other words, this is Wallace/Jeffries’ cue to explain why we should believe – based on analysis of gMark – that it actually was written by a close follower of Peter’s.

And that, my dear readers, is going to be the subject of the next CCCFK post. See you there!