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

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.