OK, Smart Guy—YOU Tell Us What Happened

Is Jesus the son of God?I’ve been on the offensive with a series of posts on the historicity of the New Testament. In conversations with Christians, however, I’ve been asked variations of this: “Okay, smart guy: you make clear that you don’t want to interpret the gospel story as literally true. Enlighten us then—how do you explain the facts? What do you think happened?”

That’s a fair question, and I’m happy to make a claim and defend it. Even if you accept my contention that the Bible is just legend and that the supernatural stuff didn’t happen—that it’s the surviving fragments of the blog of a prescientific tribe of people who lived two to three thousand years ago—that only tells us what didn’t happen.

So what did happen? That the New Testament exists is undeniable; what explains it? Here we go.

1. Jesus lived. The Christ Myth Theory, which argues there is insufficient evidence for a historical Jesus, is another possibility, but the simplest argument seems to be that a real man grounded the Jesus story. It’s easy to imagine false legend being built on a foundation of an actual person in history.

2. Jesus was an influential rabbi who had a following. He was killed, and stories grew up about him after he died.

3. The stories were passed from person to person orally for decades, eventually touching thousands or tens of thousands of people. The religion spread quickly by evangelism and trade through the Ancient Near East, from Palestine to Egypt, Syria, Asia Minor, Greece, Italy, and beyond.

4. The stories were corrupted as they went. Some of this might have been inadvertent, but some was deliberate. Embellishments were added to improve the story, either to satisfy imagined or real prophecy from the Old Testament (for a Jewish audience) or to duplicate a supernatural feature of a competing Greek, Mesopotamian, or Egyptian religion (for a gentile audience). Starting from a Jewish community that spoke Aramaic, it found a home in a far-flung community that was culturally Greek.

5. Christianity relied initially on oral history. After decades, when it became clear that the imminent second coming wasn’t coming, the apocalyptic element of the religion was toned down, the religion settled in for the long haul, and the stories were committed to parchment. A handful of these gospels were written in the first century, including the four that made it into the New Testament. Dozens more were added in the following centuries.

6. Some of these later gospels were benign, but others were dangerously incompatible. A Christian community that accepted one tradition might consider another community heretical, and vice versa. Church fathers wrote books against particular heresies: Irenaeus wrote against Gnosticism, Tertullian against Marcionism, and Origen against Platonism. Different philosophies were debated, and the collection of dogmas that we think of today as orthodox Christianity was hardly the obvious winner.

  • In opposition to Paul, the Ebionites saw Jesus as preaching an extension of Judaism, not a new religion. Paul himself documents this internal disagreement in the debate over circumcision (Gal. 6:12–13).
  • Other heresies fragmented the church before the Council of Nicaea—Montanism (an early kind of Pentecostalism), Nicolationism (hedonism), Antinomianism (an extreme view of salvation through faith alone), Sabellianism (Jesus and God the Father were not distinct persons but two aspects of one person), Doceticism (Jesus was only spirit, and his humanness was an illusion), Arianism (Jesus didn’t always exist but was a created being), rejection of Trinitarianism (God exists in three persons), and others. But of course these were heresies only from the standpoint of the church that eventually emerged victorious.

7. The gospels and epistles were copied over the years and modified in small and large ways to adapt to different communities’ beliefs.

8. What we think of as the official Christian canon of books was largely fixed at the Council of Nicaea in 325.

Point out anything that doesn’t fit, but this sketch best explains the facts as far as I can tell. It is far more plausible than accepting the gospel stories as history.

Read the first post in this series: What Did the Original Books of the Bible Say?

The word “belief” is a difficult thing for me.
I don’t believe. I must have a reason for a certain hypothesis.
[If] I know a thing, then I know it.
I don’t need to believe it.
— Carl Jung

Photo credit: fradaveccs

The Evolving Jesus Story

Christian apologetics - does God exist?If the gospel story is true, it wouldn’t change with time.  God’s personality wouldn’t change, God’s plan of salvation wouldn’t change, and the details of the Jesus story wouldn’t change.  But the New Testament books themselves document the evolution of the Jesus story.  Sort them chronologically to see.

Paul’s epistles precede Mark, the earliest gospel, by almost 20 years.  The only miracle that Paul mentions is the resurrection (1 Cor. 15:4).  Were the miracle stories so well known within his different churches that he didn’t need to mention them?  It doesn’t look like it.

Jews demand miraculous signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles (1 Cor. 1:22–3).

The Jews demand signs?  That’s not a problem.  Paul had loads of Jesus miracles to pick from.  But wait a minute—if the Jesus story is a stumbling block to miracle-seeking Jews, then Paul must not know of any miracles.

Miracles come later, with the gospels.  Looking at them chronologically, notice how the divinity of Jesus evolves.  He becomes divine with the baptism in Mark; then in Matthew and Luke, he’s divine at birth; and in John, he’s been divine since the beginning of time.

The four gospels were snapshots of the Jesus story as told in four different communities at four different times.  Because the synoptic (“looking in the same direction”) gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke share so much source material, their similarity is not surprising.  Nevertheless, 35% of Luke comes uniquely from its community (such as the parables of the Good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son), and 20% of Matthew is unique (such as Jesus and his family fleeing to Egypt after his birth and the zombies that walked after Jesus’s death).  And, of course, John is quite different from these three, having Gnostic and (arguably) Marcionite elements.

This synoptic similarity undercuts the argument that the gospels are eyewitness accounts.  If the authors of Matthew and Luke were eyewitnesses, why would they copy so heavily from Mark?  The authorship question (that Mark really wrote Mark, etc.) that grounds the claims that the gospels record eyewitness history is another tenuous element of the evolving story, as I’ve written before.

The gospels don’t even claim to be eyewitnesses (with the exception of a vague reference in John 21:24, in a chapter that appears to have been added by a later author).  And even if they had, would that make a difference?  Would tacking on “I Bartholomew was a witness to all that follows” to a gospel story make it more believable?

Would it make the story of Merlin the wizard more believable?

Consider some of the noncanonical gospels that include attributions.  “I Simon Peter and Andrew my brother took our nets and went to the sea” is from the Gospel of Peter, and “I Thomas, an Israelite, write you this account” is from the Infancy Gospel of Thomas.  These gospels are rejected both by the church and by scholars despite these claims of eyewitness testimony.  Why then imagine that the vague “This is the disciple who testifies to these things and who wrote them down; we know that his testimony is true” (John 21:24) adds anything to John?

There are dozens of noncanonical gospels.  Christian churches reject these in part because they were written late.  But if we agree that the probable second-century authorship for (say) the gospels of Thomas, Judas, and James is a problem because stories change with time, then why do the four canonical gospels get a pass?  If the gospel of John, written 60 years after the resurrection, is reliable despite being a preposterous story, why reject Thomas, written just a few decades later?

The answer, it seems, is simply that Thomas doesn’t fit the mold of the version of Christianity that happened to win.  History, even the imagined history of religion, is written by the victors.

Read the first post in this series: What Did the Original Books of the Bible Say?

God made everything out of nothing,
but the nothingness shows through
— Paul Valery

Photo credit: Wikimedia

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Dr Johnson: The Angel of Mons

Did you see the 1971 Disney movie Bedknobs and Broomsticks starring Angela Lansbury?  Set in World War II, the Germans invade a peaceful British town, but a ghostly and invulnerable battalion of animated suits of armor from the local museum fights off this modern force.

This wasn’t just an active imagination on the part of the screenwriters.  No, this came from history.

It was August of 1914, near Mons in Belgium. The German army was making its sweep into France in the opening stages of World War I. Heavily outnumbered units of the British Expeditionary Force came under vastly superior German fire, and their destruction seemed assured. But in perhaps the strangest tale in modern warfare, the British were saved at the last moment by an inexplicable heavenly presence: a brigade of warrior angels appeared and wrought destruction upon the Germans, handing the day and the victory to the British.

This is an excerpt from Skeptoid.com.  The episode goes on to expose the myth, noting that the origin of the supernatural part comes the short story “The Bowmen” by Arthur Machen, published five weeks after the battle.  Machen was inspired by the Battle of Agincourt, the miraculous and overwhelming English victory that took place almost exactly 500 years before the Battle of Mons.  He imagined the ghosts of those English and Welsh archers using their fabled longbows to annihilate the Germans like they had done to the French cavalry when they were living.

Archers became angels with an article of supposed battlefield remembrances some months later, and the angelic story was solidified by several books years later.  The story inspired Mary Norton, author of the two books from which Disney’s Bedknobs and Broomsticks was adapted.

Granted, the horde of angels was never part of any official account of the battle, and even within the British public during the war this was probably a minority belief.  But similarly, the historical resurrection of Jesus was never part of any modern consensus view of history, and Christianity is a minority of worldwide belief (to cite just two groups, Roman Catholics are 16.8% and Protestants are 6.1% [2009 estimates]).

If some combination of outright fiction, selective memory, and wishful thinking can make it into the history of our well-educated modern era, shouldn’t this natural explanation win out over the supernatural Jesus story?

Photo credit: Lichfield District Council

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Related links:

  • “Angels of Mons,” Wikipedia.
  • Brian Dunning, “The Angel of Mons,” Skeptoid, 1/20/09.

How Decades of Oral Tradition Produced the Gospels

(See the first in this series of posts traveling the tortuous journey from 21st-century Western culture back to the original story of Jesus here.)

Imagine that the year is 50 CE and you are a merchant in Judea or Galilee.  A traveler stops at your house and asks for lodging, and you comply.  After dinner, you chat with your new acquaintance and mention that you have recently become a follower of the Jewish messiah, Jesus.  He is unaware of Jesus and asks to hear more, and you tell the complete gospel story, from the birth of Jesus through his ministry, miracles, death, and resurrection.  Your guest is excited by the story and eager to pass it on.  He asks that you tell it again.

Instead, you ask him to tell the story so that you can correct any errors.  He goes through the story twice, with you making corrections and adding bits to the story that you’d forgotten in the first telling.

You’ve now spent the entire night telling the powerful story, but you and your new friend agree that it was time well spent.  He is on his way, and a week later the events are repeated, but this time your friend plays host to a traveler and the Good News is passed on to a new convert.

Imagine how long you would need to summarize the gospel story and how many times you’d need to correct yourself with, “Oh wait a minute—there was one more thing that came before” or “No, not Capernaum … I think it was Caesarea.”  That confusing tale would be a lot for an initiate to remember, and yet this imaginary encounter was about as good as it got for passing on so complex a story.  Consider other less perfect scenarios—getting fragments of the story from different people over months or years, or having two believers arguing over details as they try to tell the story.

“And then Jesus healed the centurion’s slave—”

“Hold on—that’s when he healed the daughter of Jairus!  Or Gyrus, or something.  And it wasn’t the centurion’s slave, it was his son.  Or maybe his servant, I forget.”

(And so on.)

Apologists acknowledge the problem of oral history when they argue that the earliest gospel(s) were written just 20 to 30 years after the resurrection instead historians’ typical estimate of 40 years, but this does little to resolve the problem.

Let’s then assume just twenty years of oral history in a pre-scientific culture produced a story about the Creator of the Universe coming to earth.  What certainty can we have that such a whopper is correct?

Christians and atheists can agree that the period of oral history is a concern, but what is rarely acknowledged is the translation that happened at the same time.

To see this, first consider a different example.  In response to the 1858 sightings of Mary at Lourdes, France by a 14-year-old girl named Bernadette, the local bishop investigated and concluded a year and a half later that the sightings were genuine.  Bernadette and the bishop were from the same culture and spoke the same language.

The gospel story had a much more harrowing journey.  Jesus and his disciples spoke Aramaic and came from a Jewish culture, but this isn’t where the gospel came from.  Every book in the New Testament was written in Greek and came from a Greek culture.  The story would have been heard in and (to some extent) adapted to a Greek context.

For example, imagine a gospel without the water-into-wine story.  “Wait a minute,” the Greek listener might say.  “The Oenotropae could change water into wine.  If Jesus was god, couldn’t he do that as well?”

Or imagine a gospel without the healing miracles.  “Asclepius was generous with his healing gifts and even raised the dead.  Didn’t Jesus do anything like that?”

Or a gospel without the resurrection.  “Dionysus was killed and then was reborn.  You mean Jesus just died, and that was it?”

Humans have a long history of adapting gods to their own culture—for example, the Greek god Heracles became Hercules when he was adopted by the Romans.  Athena became Minerva, Poseidon became Neptune, Aphrodite became Venus, and Zeus became Jupiter.  Or, a culture might adopt a story or idea from a neighboring community, as Jewish history adopted the Mesopotamian flood story Gilgamesh and the Sumerian water model of the cosmos.

We know how stories evolve in our own time.  As Richard Carrier notes (video @ 26:00), the evolution of the Jesus story is like the evolution of the Roswell UFO Incident.  A guy finds some sticks and Mylar in the desert, and this was interpreted as debris from a crashed spaceship.  But within 30 years, the story had morphed into: a spaceship crashed in the desert, and the military autopsied the dead aliens and is reverse-engineering the advanced technology.

Let’s return to your telling the story to the new convert.  How close was your version of the story to that in the New Testament?  And how similar would the new guy’s telling of the story be to the one that you told him?

How much variation is added with each retelling?

The gospel story was an oral tradition for four decades or more before finally being written down.  That’s a lot of time for the story to evolve.

Christians may respond that by relying on writing, our memory skills have atrophied.  In an oral culture like that in first-century Palestine, people became very good at memorization.

Yes, it’s possible that people memorized the Jesus story so that they could retell it the same as it was taught to them, but there is no reason to imagine that this was how it was passed along.  Indeed, it’s wrong to assume that storytellers in an oral culture always wanted to repeat a story with perfect accuracy.  We care about perfect accuracy because we come from a literate culture.  Only because we have the standard of the written word do we assume that other cultures would want to approximate this unvarying message.

The theory of oral-formulaic composition argues instead that tales are often changed with the retelling to adapt to the audience or to imperfect memory.  Any transcription of such a tale (like a single version of the Iliad) would simply be a snapshot of a single telling, and you would deceive yourself if you imagined that this gives an accurate record of the story.  This is seen in modern-day oral epic poetry in the Balkans and is guessed to be the structure of Homeric epic storytelling as well.

But this is a tangent.  The gospel story wasn’t an epic poem, but rather a story passed from person to person.  It changed with time, just like any story does.

The gossip fence is a better analog than Homer.

Read the first post in this series: What Did the Original Books of the Bible Say?

When a person is determined to believe something,
the very absurdity of the doctrine confirms them in their faith.
— Letters of Junius 12/19/1769

Photo credit: Wikimedia

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Is Mark an Eyewitness Account?

How do we know that Mark wrote the gospel of Mark?  How do we know that Mark recorded the observations of an eyewitness?

The short answer is because Papias (< 70 – c. 155) said so.  Papias was a bishop and an avid documenter of oral history from the early church.  His book Interpretations was written after 120 CE.

Jesus died in 30, Mark was written in 70, and Papias documents Mark as the author in 120 (dates are estimates).  That’s at least 50 years bridged only by “because Papias said so.”

But how do we know what Papias said?  We don’t have the original of Papias, nor do we have a copy.  Instead, we have Church History by Eusebius, which quotes Papias and was written in 320.

And how do we know what Eusebius said?  The oldest copies of his book are from the tenth century, though there is a Syriac translation from 462.

Count the successive people in the claim “Mark wrote Mark, which documents an eyewitness account”: (1) Peter was an eyewitness and (2) Mark was his journalist, and (3) someone told this to (4) Papias, who wrote his book, which was preserved by (5) copyist(s), and (6) Eusebius transcribed parts of that, and (7) more copyist(s) translated Eusebius to give us our oldest manuscript copy.  And the oldest piece of evidence that we can put our hands on was written four centuries after Mark was written.

That’s an exceedingly tenuous chain.

The sequence of people could have been longer still.  Papias was the bishop of Hierapolis, in western Asia Minor.  Mark might have been written in Syria, and no one knows how long the chain of hearsay was from that author to Papias.  No one knows how many copyists separated Papias from Eusebius or Eusebius from our oldest copies.

It gets worse.  Eusebius didn’t think much of Papias as a historian and said that he “seems to have been a man of very small intelligence, to judge from his books” (Church History, book III, chapter 39, paragraph 13).  Evaluate Papias for yourself: he said that Judas lived on after a failed attempt at hanging and had a head swollen so large that he couldn’t pass down a street wide enough for a hay wagon.  Who knows if this version of the demise of Judas is more reliable than that in Matthew, but it’s special pleading to dismiss Papias when he’s embarrassing but hold on to his explanation of gospel authorship.

Even Eusebius’s Church History is considered unreliable.

The story is similar for the claimed authorship of Matthew.  A twist to this story is that Papias said that Matthew wrote his gospel in Hebrew (or perhaps Aramaic), which makes no sense since Matthew used Mark, Q, and the Septuagint Bible, all Greek sources.1

What about the other gospels?  That evidence comes from other documents with simpler pedigree but later dates.

  • Irenaeus documented the traditional gospel authorship in his Against Heresies (c. 180).  Our oldest copy is a Latin translation from the tenth century.
  • Tertullian also lists the four traditional authors in his Against Marcion (c. 208), but he doesn’t think much of Luke: “[Heretic] Marcion seems to have singled out Luke for his mutilating process.”  Our oldest copy of this book is from the eleventh century.
  • The oldest manuscript labeled “gospel according to Luke” dates from c. 200.
  • The Muratorian fragment, a Latin manuscript from the seventh century, may be a translation of a Greek original from the late second century (or maybe from the fourth).  It lists many books of the New Testament, including the gospels of Luke and John.

We grope for evidence to back up the claim that the gospels document eyewitness accounts.  Perhaps only faith will get you there.

1Randel Helms, Who Wrote the Gospels? (Millennium Press, 1997), 41.

If we submit everything to reason,
our religion will have no mysterious and supernatural element.
If we offend the principles of reason,
our religion will be absurd and ridiculous.
— Blaise Pascal

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