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

Related posts:

F**kin’ Magnets—How do They Work?

Does God exist?The hip hop band Insane Clown Posse has created an interesting meme with its 2010 song “Miracles.”

Well, not so much interesting as bizarre.  Here’s a bowdlerized version of the verses in question:

Water, fire, air and dirt.
F**kin’ magnets, how do they work?
And I don’t wanna talk to a scientist.
Y’all motherf**kers lying and getting me pissed.

You really want to know how magnets work?  Here you go:

Does God exist?
These are Maxwell’s equations, the foundation of our understanding of electricity and magnetism.  A deep understanding would obviously take some effort, but the point is that this question is no mystery to science.

The song’s not all bad, but it wanders from justifiable wonder at nature (“Oceans spanning beyond my sight / And a million stars way above ’em at night”) to conflating wonder with ignorance.

Saturday Night Live did an excellent parody video.  The lyrics in their song “Magical Mysteries” include, “Where does the sun hide at night? / Did people really used to live in black and white?” which isn’t too far from denying our knowledge about magnets.

Maybe Bill O’Reilly is a Juggalo (a fan of Insane Clown Posse) because he has sounded a lot like them.  In a 2011 interview with David Silverman, president of American Atheists, O’Reilly said, “I’ll tell you why [religion is] not a scam, in my opinion.  Tide goes in, tide goes out.  Never a miscommunication.  You can’t explain that.”

(Uh … can you say, “Wikipedia”?)

And were there no consequences for O’Reilly for being this confused about reality?  He’s been lampooned for these statements (and a later defense, which was equally ridiculous) by people who weren’t his fans to begin with.  But doesn’t his fan base care about reality?  Can they possibly cheer on this willful ignorance?

Despite the contrary opinions of O’Reilly and Insane Clown Posse, learning about how things work can make them more amazing.  Actually understanding how magnets work doesn’t ruin the magic trick, it turns mysterious into marvelous.

Here’s an experiment: go outside on a clear night.  Hold out your hand, arm extended, and look at the nail of your little finger.  That fingernail is covering a million galaxies.  Not a million stars, a million galaxies.  Each galaxy has roughly 100 billion stars.  That’s 100,000,000,000,000,000 stars under just one fingernail.  Now look at how vast the sky is compared to that one tiny patch.

And how does the Bible treat this inconceivable vastness?  “[God] also made the stars” (Gen. 1:16).  That’s it.

The god of the Old Testament is little more than an absolute monarch with the wisdom of Solomon, the generalship of Alexander, and the physical strength of Hercules.  But science gives you the vastness of the universe, the energy of a supernova, the bizarreness of quantum physics, and the complexity of the human body.  The writers of the Bible were constrained by their imagination, and it shows.  There is so much out there that they couldn’t begin to imagine.  If you want wonder, discard the Bible and open a science book.

And this is not groundless myth, it’s science—the discipline that makes possible your reading this across the Internet, on a computer, powered by electricity (and governed by Maxwell’s equations).

Carl Sagan said, “We are star stuff” to suggest that we are literally made from the remnants of stars.  Two adjoining carbon atoms in a molecule in your body might have come from different exploding stars.  Science gives us this insight, not religion.

Second-century Christian author Tertullian is credited with the maxim, credo quia absurdum (I believe because it is absurd).  In other words, no one could make this stuff up.

If you believe anything either in spite of evidence to the contrary or because of it, science may not for you.  But if you want to understand reality to the best of humanity’s ability, rely on science.  C’mon in—the water’s fine!

Science does not make it impossible to believe in God,
but it does make it possible to not believe in God.
Steve Weinberg, Nobel Laureate in Physics

Photo credit: mutantMandias

Related posts:

Related links:

  • “Miracles” by Insane Clown Posse: video (cued to the magnets verse) and lyrics.  Caution: rated PG-13 for language.
  • “F*cking Magnets, How Do They Work?” Know Your Meme.
  • “Bill O’Reilly You Can’t Explain That,” Know Your Meme.
  • Robert Quigley, “Bill O’Reilly’s Tidal Skepticism Launches ‘You Can’t Explain That’ Meme,” Geekosystem, 2/10/11.
  • A succinct summary of how modern technology makes the marvels of Jesus look pathetic is here.

Principle of Analogy

I recently found the name for a simple and common sense idea that is often abused in apologetics circles, the Principle of Analogy.

Bob Price described it this way:

We don’t know that things have always happened the way they do now.  But unless we assume that, we can’t infer anything about the past.  If we don’t assume that physics and chemistry have always worked by the same laws, we’re just going to believe anything any nut says.  …

[Imagine being confronted with the claim,] “I met a guy today who turned into a werewolf when the full moon came out.”  Wait a minute—I know of no one who has ever seriously claimed to have ever seen that, so there is no analogy to current day experience to such a claim.  But … there are fictional stories and movies where that happens.  I bet this really is one of those.  (Source)

How do we categorize a miracle claim from history?  What’s it analogous to?  Does it look like the plausible activities of ordinary people or does it look like legend?  You can’t say for sure, of course, but which bin does this claim best fit into?

Did a winged horse carry Muhammad?  Did Joseph Smith find golden plates with the help of the angel Moroni?  Can faith healers cure illness that modern medicine can’t?  Science has no analogy to these claims, but mythology and legend do.

Incredibly, I’ve heard Christians reject this principle and argue that an atheist must bring positive evidence against their claims.  Say for example that the question is whether Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead.  The Christian points to this story in the gospel of John—that’s the evidence in favor.  And then he says, “So where’s your evidence against?”

Of course, I have no direct evidence against this particular event.  I have no direct evidence that Jesus didn’t raise Lazarus or that Merlin wasn’t a shape-shifting wizard or that Paul Bunyan didn’t exist.  The plausibility test that we all use helps ensure that we don’t simply believe everything we hear or read.  Well, all of us, I guess, except someone who’s eager to make exceptions to preserve a preconception.

Something can violate the Principle of Analogy only with substantial evidence.  The claim “I can see through opaque objects” properly fit into the magical category until Wilhelm Röntgen demonstrated x-rays.

Until we have an analogy to a miracle story, it properly belongs in the magical category as well.

Related posts:

Related links:

  • The Bob Price quote was from a 4/11/2010 interview titled “How to Study the Historical Jesus” from Common Sense Atheism.  The MP3 file is here (go to 13:30).