Why I am Not a Christian
Part 1: Redaction
“Est giebt Menschen die gar nicht irren, weil sie sich nichts Vernunftiges vorsetzen.” [There are men who never err, because they never propose anything rational.] –Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (Spruche in Prosa, III)
Religion is continually influencing all those who adhere to its formulaic thinking, this is called dogma. Although not universally negative, to an extent, it is this sort of thinking that limits a devout person’s reason by putting restrictions on what they are allowed to believe, by holding them to doctrinal opinion, or by placing stipulations on how they can attain understanding of their beliefs for interpreting such creeds. Whether we are believers or not we are all victims of the influence of religion, both the positive and the negative, to one degree or another. And this raises the question: is religion good for us? Some believe so. I used to think so, but have since changed my mind on the matter. I hope to elucidate curious readers as to some of the key reasons for my deconversion from supernatural thinking to a more regimented rationality.[i]
Along with the rise of agricultural civilization, religion offered structure in a dog eat dog world and paved way for systems of governance, set up institutions to help regulate and organize, succeeded power to patriarchs and gave them dominion over their subjects, and is largely why the worship of authority prevails in religious thought—every page of the Bible, Qur’an, and Torah are drenched with simple minded surf mentality and the desire to subject oneself to a higher power. But evolution of religion has not adapted well with the times,[ii] things have changed, and today’s world isn’t about giving your life over to a ruler, a patriarch, or a king—but it’s about taking the responsibility as a sovereign individual and human being. Long ago religion could dictate how one lived, but the world was smaller then, and people needed religion in their lives for the spiritual consonance and comfort it brought them, yet over the span of history those in power abused their positions of authority and drove the religious experiment into the ground.[iii] The crash was devastating, and for the past few centuries people have been trying to reconstruct religious faith to better fit with their modern lifestyles and beliefs.
Religion in today’s world survives only by finding a barely sustainable equilibrium, balancing on a knife’s edge where reality and superstition collide, and where any extra weight of one or the other could tip the scales either way. This is where either disbelief is suspended—inviting ignorance and a level of credulity not compatible with our modern understanding of the world—so that religious traditions of bygone times may live another day past their expiration date, or else, reason wins out and the failed venture of religious faith is abandoned for brighter prospects and new horizons.
Its most amiable traits aside, religion is no longer the progressive means of combating the cruel darkness which has haunted the human race throughout the majority of our existence. We now have better tools at our disposal for gaining a better understanding of the world and universe around us, as well as achieving a pleasanter quality of life and happiness, even without religion.
What follows then is a short and concise explanation for a few of the reasons I stopped believing in the Christian scheme and an examination of a few samples of what convinced me that the Christian claims, as with most religious claims, are completely erroneous and entirely false. My first argument for why religious beliefs fail, especially those of Christianity, will be focused on the creation of the Christian canon and the undeniable changes made to the Bible. We will look at how augmentations were made to “God’s Word” to fit with religious evangelical agendas over the course of history, and also the manipulation of the scriptures to conform to doctrinal creeds not scientific facts. This first part which looks at the formulation and alteration of the text is entitled: Redaction.
Truthfully, if the Bible can be proved beyond a reason of a doubt to be manmade and riddled with irreconcilable errors and contradictions, then it cannot be a trustworthy text, and cannot be relied upon to form any basis for establishing faith. This section is on the Errancy of the Bible. Later on I shall discuss how science and life experience also break the spell of religion’s hold over us. This section will be on why science is correct and religion is wrong.
When you stop to think about it, if the Bible is simply a compiled of mythology, fable, and legend loosely veiled around the strands of historicity, and is not in any way divinely inspired (as the faithful claim it is), then having any faith in what the Bible proposes to be true would be foolish. It would be putting faith into imaginary and untrustworthy things. Likewise, if the claims of Christianity (as well as the stories) can be proved a palpable fantasy, then Faith, in such a case, would be unwarranted in the first place. In fact, I find atheism leaves me with no cognitive dissidence. Thus becoming an atheist was simply the natural process of falling out with an already highly strained and faltering faith.
Many think that when you become an atheist you have entered into a world of empty meaning, despair, and mental anguish. This is just not the case. In fact, as most ex-believers can attest to, just the opposite seems to be true. I think it’s fair to say that it’s like Karen Armstrong stated in her book A History of God where she injects the phenomenon of falling out of faith with just the right amount of candor and honesty, reflecting:
The more I learned about the history of religion, the more my earlier misgivings were justified. The doctrines that I had accepted without question as a child were indeed man made, constructed over a long period of time. Science seemed to have disposed of the Creator God and biblical scholars had proved that Jesus had never claimed to be divine.[iv]
For those who question, for those who seek genuine answers, and demand to know the real truth, then it is necessary to go beyond faith. But first, it is necessary, in my estimation, to understand one’s faith more thoroughly–and this means for those willing to keep an open mind–a heuristic adventure awaits!
Faith is not a valid Argument
Taking it all on faith without the necessity of clarification or fact checking is why when atheists argue with believers there is often a sort of circular run around. The believer continually tries to force their dogma drenched beliefs on the nonbeliever and the nonbeliever, rightly, rejects such unfair stipulations and requests that the believer go read a few good books and get back to him. Most often the religious defiantly refuse to do any leg work at all needed to defend their position by claiming they’ve read the only book they’ll ever need to (insert sacred text of choice here). This form of faith coupled with the lack of a erudite research and the misguided desire to rely on no more than one very old faulty text, that is wrong on just about darn near everything, is inadequate to mount a valid defense for any religious proposition. Meanwhile, most of the atheist arguments have stood up well enough and act as pillars of reason.
Perhaps this is the reason why skeptics and nonbelievers appear so agitated when the religious hound them with the same old tautologies and failed arguments, or persist against an avalanche of repeated refutations, and in fly by night fashion reject science without so much as looking into matters thoroughly enough only to restate their unfounded suppositions. It’s simply because they are challenging all other theories, arguing theirs alone is right while contending any others, frequently without ever having looked at or understood the contrary position or argument. But the point which needs to be made is it’s not only about how many reasons you have to believe in something or the quality of the argument, but also how much evidence you have to back up your reasons so that your argument might mean something.
In the Absence of Faith: Where Shall Truth Be Found?
Such religious texts as the Christian Bible and Muslim Qur’an tell us comparatively nothing about the world or universe we do live in. Where, we might have to wonder, is the physics that teaches us how to calculate the hours of each week down to the atomic seconds? Where’s the cosmology and astronomy which tells us the real age of the universe? Where is the medical science which shows us how to give CPR and resuscitate someone and bring them back to life, do a heart transplant, a brain surgery, or a MRI scan? Where is the mention of microprocessor technology to show us how to build a satellite to keep our cell phones working, or to put up the COBE, HUBBLE, WMAP, or WEB telescopes in their search for the origins of the universe, or mention of the super computers which helped to unravel the human genome, in turn which has unraveled the genetic code of the DNA helix and has effectively abolished racial prejudice and shown us our common ancestors and African emergence? Where is the anthropology, archeology, geology, and advanced biology which uncovers the greater truths of our past, our origins, and shows how we evolved through the gradual process of natural selection, explains our mutating RNA, and accurately informs us that encoded in our DNA are the clues which reveal we all share a common ancestry with all other living things? Yes, even trees and mushrooms, cheetahs, and snails! Where is the dietetics and mathematics which can accurately measure our calorie intake and find the best dietary regiment to maintain our best health according to our individual bodies? Where is the information I need that will tell me how to download the latest iPhone app so that I can send an instant email message to my family on the other side of the world faster than it took the biblical God to say, “Let there be light”? If anything the iPhone has made the debunked concept of “prayer” a reality.[v] Where is all the vast knowledge an omnipotent, omnipresent, omniscient being should willfully share if he were to dictate a great book to us? It does not exist—not in the Bible, not in the Qur’an, not in any religious text. But why not?
Sure enough, the religious like to come back with the excuse that the whole list of human accomplishments couldn’t have been made without the guiding grace of an all knowing all loving god. They mistake the ingenuity of the imagination and human intuition as external forces and guiding agents. Yet this is because their understanding of how our minds work is limited,[vi] and they don’t feel burdened enough to move past their own primitive assumptions. They will add that the Bible offers something deeply profound, that it offers spiritual advice and is a good guide on how to live a life of faith.
But the crux is, without having the ingenuity and fortitude to persevere and invent all those wonderful things, the necessities of life and what not, without the human accomplishments which allowed us to make it this far, we would not have survived long enough to enjoy the finer nuances of spiritual musings. So why wouldn’t a loving God want us to have such beneficial knowledge right from the get go? Why would God rather give us a book full of metaphor, allegory, all mixed up with archaic myth and mysticism? None of it very good, most of it generic copies of previous myths or legends,[vii] why all that instead of any real genuine knowledge? We could have ended world suffering and the climate crisis by now if only we had the proper incentive and knowhow from the beginning. Why wouldn’t a loving God want this? Unless, of course, God wasn’t really a loving entity,[viii] or else, not really there and so couldn’t really be bothered? [ix]
If any religious text remotely gets close to an accurate answer about the way things are in the real world it is because the men who wrote it may have had a limited understanding of their subject matter and ventured a lucky guess. The ambiguous and generalized nature of most holy texts is a clear indicator of this. Science and human rationale have done all the real grunt work in figuring out the secret workings of the world, universe, and in improving our quality of life. Religion has not—although it frequently has taken the credit for it. We know this much, science works when religion doesn’t—science succeeds where religion fails—and that’s no trivial fact.
What is Truth?
Just consider, for a moment, that there is no geological evidence of a worldwide flood of biblical proportions, no archaeological evidence that Pharaoh’s army drowned in the Red Sea (the Sea of Reeds) after Moses parted it, Mt. Sinai seems to be missing from the geography of the Holy Land, and Jesus’ central prophecy (that oppressive regimes would be destroyed in the Apocalypse and a new Kingdom of God established on Earth within the lifetime of those witnessing his preaching) did not come to pass.[x] Although, admittedly the Christian story, at least the oral version which is popularly passed around today about a Messiah who came to save us out of God’s love for us simple creatures, with all of its political intrigue and spiritual undertones, is in my opinion a much more engrossing and captivating story than many others. Probably this ability to speak to us on different levels and in a way which reaffirms our aspirations and promises something better is the reason for Christianity’s continued universal appeal.
Nevertheless, Christianity is still a young enough faith that we availably can study its progression from its initial origins to its ultimate fruition as a major world religion. In turn, manmade anthropomorphized god(s) have developed, myths have run wild, sacred customs implemented, theologies manhandled, holy texts manipulated, and religious doctrines misapplied and taken to the tolerable limits of what mankind can bear by the very demagogues which tirelessly seek to maintain their supremacy. We’ve witnessed it all from its derivation and have record of its formulation every step of the way.[xi] For a believer to be unaware of it, to not know what the Christian story is or means in historical terms, is to make the implicit statement that as a Christian you’d rather not ask such daunting questions because it might reveal more truth than you are ready to handle. Thus the practice of maintaining the faith precludes the practice of seeking the truth. For a person of faith it simply means the real truth is only to be found inside of the Christian story—not apart from it. For the skeptic and nonbeliever is means that truth can only be found outside and external to the mere cultural stories of a few. Indeed, our reliance on the truth depends on the evidence accrued from sources beyond the limits of archaic scripture. And for this reason, atheists and independent secular freethinkers walk the road less traveled by because they seek out these pearls of truth—whereas believers are contented with the assumption that they contain the only truth they will ever need. Zealous belief in the Bible as a hallowed text, and the obvious example of how such a doctrine of infallibility can so easily corrupt and override common logic, can be characteristically summed up by suffering to listen to the biblical scholar John William Burgon, who over a century ago, dogmatically declared, “The Bible is none other than the voice of Him that sitteth upon the Throne! Every Book of it, every Chapter of it, ever Verse of it, every word of it, every syllable of it… every letter of it, is the direct utterance of the Most High!”[xii] Yet it is this undiscerning, uncritical, outlook which leads religious Fundamentalists to ignore the wealth of empirical evidence we do have. Like most religion, their dogma has blinded them so entirely that they can only have a limited view of the world with a restricted understanding of it. But seeking the real truth requires us to go beyond the confines of blind religious dogma.
I remember my first religious class in college the professor, a white bearded sage reminiscent of Socrates, required Northrop Frye’s The Great Code be read. Needless to say, this first venture into Higher Criticism confounded and frustrated me. Frye’s book was so intricately complex, so dense, so overflowing with pertinent inquiries and relevant revelations, that it took me three readings before I felt like I had understood the gist of it. Frye’s book would continue to haunt me throughout my first University level Biblical studies course because I couldn’t seem to calibrate my Christian beliefs which what was proving to dismantle those beliefs and reveal an underlying truth which was contrary to everything I was raised to believe. This contradiction didn’t deliberately present itself, but through incremental steps I moved towards a bigger understanding of what was at the core of what I professed to believe. Like peeling back the layers of an onion, I was bound and determined to fight through the painful reveals and get to the bottom of it.
After years of learning the tools and techniques of higher criticism, the science of analyzing a text via various methods of comparative analysis, linguistic examination, etymological, and paleographical techniques and so on, we learned to discern what was authentic from what wasn’t, what was likely to be factual and what was irrelevant, between what was probably the best explanation and that which didn’t belong and so could be discarded. Needless to say, I spent endless hours coming back to the Biblical stories I was raised on and dissected them. Fascinated by what I found under the layers of texts, I began to find the patterns which would reveal the intentions of the early authors, found parallels in other cultures and traditions which revealed an organic permeation of ideas and myths, all being preserved for posterity. This led me to uncover legitimate truths, and the more objective I became the more I learned. And what I learned was that these ancient stories, especially the New Testament and Gospel stories, were the victim’s of an endless cycle of editorship and copyediting. What this means is, the Christian stories of the Gospel account of Jesus Christ and the rest of the New Testament yarn has been severely tampered with and altered by later writers working from the templates of anonymous texts, only to be re-altered, amended, and sculpted to fit the aspirations of later evangelicals, which were in turn re-augmented and canonized to fit the agendas of the early Church—and in literary terms this constant reformation and reformulation of a text is called Redaction.
A Crash Course in Detecting Redaction
For a person trained in the critical methods of textual analysis, detecting Redaction in the Gospels is actually quite easy. Anyone can learn to do it, all you need is to have a little proper technical training first. To give a crash course in detecting Redaction in scripture, and how critics apply the method, let us take Hamlet’s soliloquy as an example, as the writings of William Shakespeare are almost as equally as recognizable as the Bible.
To be, or not to be–that is the question:
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles
And by opposing end them. Dude, where’s my car?
To die, to sleep—And the dreams that you dare to dream,
really do come true.
No more–and by a sleep to say we end
The heartache, and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to. ‘Tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wished. To die, to sleep–
To sleep–perchance to dream: ay, there’s the rub,
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause. There’s the respect
That makes calamity of so long life.
Come with me if you want to live.
For who would bear the whips and scorns of time,
Th’ oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s contumely
The pangs of despised love, the law’s delay,
The insolence of office, and the spurns
Touched like a virgin, for the very first time
That patient merit of th’ unworthy takes,
When he himself might his quietus make
With a bare bodkin? and accordingly all experience hath shewn
That mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable than To right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed.
Who would fardels bear,
To grunt and sweat under a weary life,
But that the dread of something after death,
The undiscovered country, from whose bourn
No traveler returns, puzzles the will,
And makes us rather bear those ills we have
Than fly to others that we know not of?
Thus conscience does make cowards of us all,
And thus the native hue of resolution
Where you able to detect the sentences which shouldn’t belong? Can you tell which language and style was not Shakespearean? Could you see the difference between old fashioned English and modern day colloquial speech? Did you hear the friction in meter and how it throws off the pace and flow of the poetry? Did you find the lyrics to “Over the Rainbow,” the film Dude, Where’s my Car, The Terminator, Madonna, and the United States Declaration of Independence? See, it’s not actually that difficult to do, and with the proper education of ancient languages and texts from the various time periods, all of this abundance of knowledge makes it easy to detect the amendments and additions which don’t belong in any given manuscript and puts their authenticity into doubt. Biblical scholars and critics have been using these techniques for years to find the bits of scripture which just didn’t belong. Granted it’s not always that easy, since a lot of research and analysis must go on in scrutinizing any given text, especially ancient ones. It becomes increasingly difficult when we don’t actually know who the authors were, or what their main purpose was, such as the case with the four Gospels. For example, if we didn’t know that Shakespeare was the original author of Hamlet’s speech, we might conclude that a person named Hamlet had written or said this, and as such it would be deemed the Gospel of Hamlet by later enthusiasts—even though there was no such historical person. This is exactly what happened with much of the New Testament including all of the Gospels.
A Better Understanding
Today we have better translations and a clearer understanding of the languages and cultures unique to the time the Gospels were written and compiled, so historians can accurately piece them together and date all the varying fragments to within rough estimates of when they would have been created. Utilizing these various techniques of higher criticism is how historians know that Redaction has occurred in the Bible. Also, this textual synthesis of conflating texts is how we know the Gospels are not eye-witness accounts, but fictional stories using everyday conversational talk to narrate the aspirations of early Christians, which later get augmented by overzealous evangelicals of varying Christian sects trying override competing heresies and eventually gain universal acceptance. In his book Lost Christianities, Biblical historian Bart D. Ehrman expounds:
…there were many early Christian groups, most of them recognizing the eternal significance of the theological truths that they claimed, and yet most of them also at odds—not just with the Roman religions surrounding them and the Jewish religion from which they emerged but also with one another… Among the fascinating “discoveries” by scholars in modern times has been the realization of just how diverse these Christian groups were from one another, just how “right” each one felt it was, just how avidly it promoted its own views over against those of the others.[xiii]
“What is Truth?” Pontius Pilate infamously asked the Christ in the fourth Gospel.[xiv] The same question was also posited to Joseph of Arimathea in Karel Čapek’s short stories featuring a dialogue between Pilate and Joseph of Arimathea. Joseph replies to Pilate’s inquiry with the philosophical rebuttal, “The truth in which I believe.” This is the correct answer to the question which is merely asking a generality—what is the definition of truth (according to you)? Arimathea’s answer is that faith, or that which he chooses to believe wholeheartedly in, is his ultimate truth—that is to say that the truth is anything we make it to be. We wouldn’t expect anything less from a person of faith. But this answer is esoteric, muddled, and philosophically obscure and is subject to interpretation. This is not good enough for talking about what we can definitively know about something instead of what we can merely surmise.
Of course, this rudimentary and subjective way of thinking is undemanding, it’s simply the application of imagination reconciling the issues at hand so they will come out as we’d like. Although, by a critical historian’s standards it’s iniquitous, limited in scope, and doesn’t represent the world as it is but how we’d like it to be. Most religious believers never reach a deeper level of understanding about the Bible or the nature of their own beliefs because they are contented to rely simply on faith—regardless of whether or not it is true. For those concerned with seeking out the bona fide truth, and not the Sunday school/Bible study five-and-dime variety, it takes discipline to be thoroughly objective, perseverance to face the facts even if they should disagree with you, and it takes an erudite effort to go beyond the knowledge of the common person to find the answers you’re searching for.
Once I learned that there were proven methods and ways of discerning from what is true and what wasn’t it was easy. Things which are true fit the evidence, have little to no discrepancy, and are consistent with what is commonly known. Things which are not true tend to be the opposite and fail to meet such prerequisites. The majority of the Bible, and so too the New Testament, are discrepant, inconsistent, and have little to no evidence which fits with what is known. Simply put, if your beliefs are not consistent with the established bulwark of human knowledge, then they probably are not defensible. In that case, other people are not warranted in believing what you say about them, and furthermore you have no reason to expect anyone to believe you. Therefore, in order for Christianity to be true, in any capacity, it must meet these aforementioned prerequisites, which it does not, which means that the main claims of Christianity are probably false.[xv]
These newfound truths we have accumulated via higher criticism and science directly contradict what the Bible has been saying for so long. In other words, I believe the evidence shows that Christian faith is not sustainable in light of what we know, because the majority claims are untrue or altogether bogus. To have our beliefs challenged in such a way as to find them inaccurate or all together fraudulent is appalling for most believers. Some people, it’s true, may never get over the initial jolt of it and denial becomes their strongest ally. Nevertheless, I believe it is a necessary step in growing beyond the absence of faith and holding to, not obsolete beliefs and shibboleths of superstition, but learning to approach the event horizon of awareness with a level-headed judiciousness.
A Bad Proposition and an Unfair Wager
Why not believe in God? Simply put, because I have no good reason to. However, before I discus the redaction of the Gospels in more detail, my primary reason for not believing, I think I should briefly outline the argument most theists make for holding the belief in God (otherwise what do we have to talk about?). So let us consider whether or not we can feasibly prove or disprove God’s existence, something I’ve only alluded to but haven’t addressed fully enough. Although I consider myself a layman when it comes to philosophical arguments, as I’m much better suited for research and analysis, I will take my best stab at going over Pascal’s Wager and other arguments leveled against atheism.
Disproving God altogether is, I admit, impossible. There’s no surprise here. Providing proof of something which is non-existent, or likely doesn’t exist in our world, is impossible. Proving that whatever it may turn out to be is completely absent and so is likely not to exist altogether is, however, easy to do. All we have to do is consult the readily available evidence (which should exist). If there is no good evidence then this lack of evidence would, in fact, be evidence in itself that whatever it is we are trying to prove did not exist. If you’ve followed me so far, we can then safely assume that God does not exist if there is no evidence, evidence which by every reasonable estimation made, should exist if God is real.
What kind of evidence would prove the existence of God? That’s easy, produce God—and atheism is not. But if you can’t do that, then confirm a miracle using the tools of science and reason, validate a prayer and the causes and effects and pin-point and establish a true faith by weeding out those where miracles and prayers do not work, make a prediction of an unknown event which could not have been learned other than through supernatural means. All of these things humans have tried for thousands of years to no avail. If however, you feel that your faith is true and that your God is real, you will have to overcome these obstacles and present your case comprehensibly, but not only this, ensure that it is testable, repeatable, and then you will have something which can be critically examined. Until that time, the religious arguments, as I know them, are entirely lacking. Indeed, one of the best examples of this deficiency is in that of Pascal’s wager for belief in God.
One of the most unfair stipulations of all is Pascal’s wager made by the seventeenth century French mathematician Blaise Pascal who created a theological theory which seeks to confound the atheists’ reason by offering a logical digression—one which is so deceptively simple the atheist will be forced to accept the inevitability that God is real. However, it’s not quite that simple, mostly because the argument is filled with so many non sequiturs. Pascal’s wager is this:
If there is a God, He is infinitely incomprehensible, since, having neither parts nor limits, He has no affinity to us. We are then incapable of knowing either what He is or if He is … you must wager. It is not optional. You are embarked. Which will you choose then? Let us weigh the gain and the loss in wagering that God is. Let us estimate these two chances. If you gain, you gain all; if you lose, you lose nothing. Wager then without hesitation that he is.[xvi]
It sounds reasonable enough. Why not just take up belief and the whole notion of God? What has the atheist got to lose, other than a little bit of pride? Well, there are a few non sequiturs which give us probable cause to doubt the argument. If we can walk away from the argument then we are left right where we began—still happy to admit the limits of our understanding and still knowing that there is no evidence of God’s existence. Which is the first non sequitur in Pascal’s argument.
Pascal states that God is ‘infinitely incomprehensible’ and that we are ‘incapable of knowing’ what he is or if he is. Starting from this, a state of not knowing, then how can we know what to wager on? If God is impossible to know, as Pascal himself informs, then why bet away our souls on something which may not even exist to begin with? The atheist wouldn’t even bother to consider putting down on this wager since it only restates what their position already is, that God doesn’t exist.
Pascal’s argument goes on to inform that if God turns out to be the real deal then those who have denied him will be in danger of tempting his wrath, judgment, and inescapably invoke their due punishment. Betting on the side of God just in case, however, is a better bet than betting against God and ending up being wrong. Just to be safe, bet on God. Fair enough, but what if an atheist who is too honest and ethical can’t fully bring his/herself to buy the delusion, to believe in any God, because they are uncomfortable with pretending to know more than they can possibly know? If they choose to take up the wager, albeit superficially, then the atheist is put in the position of having to lie about believing in God, and thus are in danger of lying to God (also a punishable offense in many God fearing religions) if he should exist.
Who would the God of truth and justice judge more fairly, we might wonder, the honest man who admits he had not enough evidence to establish a firm belief, or the man who lied through his teeth just to get into Heaven? If God couldn’t see through this ruse, then what good is wagering in such a being at all? This is the second non-sequitur, since according to the wager one has to willingly be able to lie to themselves in order to reasonably believe in God. No rational person that I know of would risk a guilty conscience just to feel justified in safeguarding their wellbeing, just as a precaution against the threat of pitiless gods, based on insufficient evidence for the existence of said gods.
We might agree with the scientist Richard Dawkins when he states in the The God Delusion that, “Pascal’s Wager could only ever be an argument for feigning belief in God.”[xvii] We are left to understand that the wager falls flat when we presume that God is omniscient and that he’d clearly see through the deception. As many prior philosophers have pointed out, it is also possible to conceive of a deity who rewards intellectual honesty over deceitful cowardice. This would ensure the safety of honest atheists while dishonest theists would be risking God’s contempt. Equally probable, as noted by the philosopher J.L. Mackie, is the idea that God is altogether evil and punishes the good and rewards the evil. Paul N. Tobin points out in his book, and supplementary website, The Rejection of Pascal’s Wager that:
…Pascal’s argument is seriously flawed. The religious environment that Pascal lived in was simple. Belief and disbelief only boiled down to two choices: Roman Catholicism and atheism. With a finite choice, his argument would be sound. But on Pascal’s own premise that God is infinitely incomprehensible, then in theory, there would be an infinite number of possible theologies about God, all of which are equally probable.[xviii]
The above mentioned problem arises by throwing in additional theologies into the mix, all of them valid since they are all equally probable, and since God is altogether incomprehensible, in all probability we could not know which theology is the right one to bet on. Betting on the right faith then become an extreme gamble against even extremer odds. The more lavish religious theologies enter the equation the more plentiful the numbers are and the worse our odds of turning up with the correct deity/theology it becomes.
Indeed, there may be no way to quantify the limits of such a probability drive. This might make us question the wager all the more knowing we could never be entirely certain of the correct answer but inevitably must face the infinite multiplication of the improbable ones. Our souls would be perpetually moving away from any attainable salvation too, if we consider that we need to bet correctly in order to win the right belief and obtain salvation. Under any design as problematic as this one is, we could only hope to fall into the correct faith by only a chance of luck. This ultimately makes all faiths equally as probable, or since only one can be right, as equally improbable. Either way it renders either choice invalid according to the claims of the wager, which rests on the premise that there is one, and only one, correct belief and expression of faith. This is dilemma is the third non-sequitur, because every faith, and every god, and every religion which has ever existed or which will come to exist can’t all simultaneously be right. Although, we might notice there’s nothing which suggests they can’t all be wrong.
Yet for the sake of argument we might suggest that we should limit our choices to the main three monotheisms, allowing for (against our better judgment) our consideration that Yahweh, Allah, and Jesus Christ as equally valid options. If not the same entity and the God of Abraham, then there is still a three to one odds that all of us, the atheist and believer alike, will bet wrongly. As you can see, Pascal’s wager is a sour deal and should be rejected.
This may not disprove God, per say, but it does prove we shouldn’t argue the point of whose God is the most probable, for as we have seen, they are all equally improbable. We might question the likelihood of there being a God at all, knowing that we can never find him out by choice, and that there isn’t enough empirical evidence to knowingly claim he exists.
Supplanting Tradition: Judaism Usurped by Christianity
In his brilliant book Jesus and Yahweh: The Names Divine, the literary critic Harold Bloom brings up the most apparent, and regrettably the most ignored, of Biblical changes which should cause us to immediately doubt the divinity of the text as a whole. Bloom’s acute observations lead the scholar to write, “The New Testament frequently is a strong misreading of the Hebrew Bible, and certainly it has persuaded multitudes,” and goes on to inform, “The New Testament accomplishes its appropriation by means of its drastic reordering of the Tanakh.”[xix] On the following page Bloom gives a side-by-side list of the book changes of the Old Testament in comparison to the original order of the Jewish Tanakh—i.e. the original Jewish holy book before passionate Christians hijacked and newly reassembled it into what we deem the “Old Testament.”
Due to the fact many Christians are not aware of this reordering of the original “Word of God” I should like to recite the flaws which historians and scholars have been pointing out as the primary fingerprints of human involvement behind said “divine” texts. This man made touch is not an assumed conspiracy but rather a provable historical happening. Once we honestly investigate the matter we can readily admit to this as we can see that the design of the whole of the Holy Bible is not a work of God so much as the work of men. A Jew by birth, Bloom does such a fine job of pinpointing the exact Biblical alterations, I feel, it’s worthwhile to quote a rather long paragraph pertaining to the initial re-ordering of the text.
The King James Bible, with which readers…are likely…most familiar, departs from the Tanakh’s order initially by inserting Ruth between Judges and I Samuel, perhaps because as the ancestress of David, she is the remote ancestress also of Jesus. Then, in a major change, it follows Kings with Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther, Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Solomon’s Song, before proceeding to the major prophets Isaiah and Jeremiah, whose Lamentations are then inserted before Ezekiel. Then comes Daniel, given the status of a major prophet, and then all is concluded with the grouping of the Twelve Minor Prophets, from Hosea through Malachi.[xx]
Every single one of these cited examples depict changes made from the original order of the Tanakh. Many of these changes were presumably made to better coincide with the latter addition of the Gospels and better able the support for the coming prophesy of a Davidic Messiah figure hailing from King David’s royal bloodline, something which we earlier stressed in relationship to the census debate. Changes made to coincide with a coming Messiah may be misleading to those Christians who have not considered that since these changes were, ironically enough, made after the fact the Christian prophesies could in no way be reliable. Bloom adds, “Aside from the inclusion of the apocryphal works, the crucial Christian revisions are its elevation of Daniel and the difference in endings…” which alerts us to the intent of early Church leaders who wanted to portray early Jewish prophesy and stories in a altogether different, unavoidably and most certainly ahistorical light.
In his rather telling conclusion of his chapter regarding the futile attempt to find a purely historical Jesus, Bloom states in what might be the most telling and brutally truthful insight in regards to the alteration of Biblical text, relaying:
If the New Testament triumphed in the Roman mode, and it did under Constantine, then the captive led in procession was the Tanakh, reduced to slavery as the Old Testament. All subsequent Jewish history, until the founding more than half a century ago of the State of Israel, testifies to the human consequences of that textual slavery.
We can’t help but be dumbfounded at how these obvious facts have gone so long unnoticed. This peculiar fact has led many skeptics to assume that there has been a large Christian conspiracy to cover these thought provoking facts up, but I think it has more to do with the almost illiterate and uneducated status of those who put their spiritual and religious beliefs into the blind dogmatic loyalties of what their religious leaders dictate to them. The gullibility of believers to eat up what their religious advisors tell them is, whether or not it’s intentional, reveals the extreme naïveté of the followers of religion.
Not understanding the argument because they lack the evidence, due to their nominal education of Biblical history, is to be expected in those who take things on blind faith. The fact is the majority of church goers are lazy when it comes to fact checking, just as I was when I was a believing Christian. As such I believed what I was being told at church was the real history. It wasn’t even close. Yet Christianity isn’t the only religion to convince itself of its own authority. Sam Harris quips:
If our polls are to be trusted, nearly 230 million Americans believe that a book showing neither unity of style nor internal consistency was authored by an omniscient, omnipotent, and omnipresent deity. A survey of Hindus, Muslims, and Jews around the world would surely yield similar results, revealing that we, as a species, have grown almost perfectly intoxicated by our myths.[xxi]
To track down the crumbs of the authentic history and follow where they may lead us takes hours upon hours of diligent study, effort, and tireless drive to uncover the truth. Not all people have this drive, time, energy or the means to become amateur historians and biblical scholars. Primarily for this reason, among others, I find it important to bring this fact up here.
Theologians have often cited the intertextual nature of the Gospels as an evident proof to their divine origin, although this is purely wishful thinking, since their arguments have never stood up against old fashioned literary criticism. Even the Gospels do not fully agree with one another all of the time, as Bart D. Ehrman puts it, “The biblical authors did not agree on everything they discussed; sometimes they had deeply rooted and significant disagreements.”[xxii] Ultimately, this can be troubling for anyone who believes that the Bible is the literal word of God. Robert M. Price, part of the Jesus Seminar, and author of The Incredible Shrinking Son of Man, has equivocated:
The controlling presupposition seems to be, “If the traditional view cannot be absolutely debunked beyond the shadow of a doubt, if it still might possibly be true, then we are within our rights to continue to believe it.” But scholarly judgments can never properly be a matter of “the will to believe.” Rather, the historian’s maxim must always be Kant’s: “Dare to know.”[xxiii]
Historical Influences, Canonization, and further Theological Tampering
Browsing through the Synoptic Gospels, the first three gospels of the New Testament, we discover that the canonical order of these Gospels follows the tradition that the book of Matthew came first. This was originally proposed by the fifth century bishop Augustine of Hippo. He did so to try and explain the consistent relationships between the Synoptic Gospels by proposing that Matthew was written prior to Mark which in turn used Matthew as a source. Finally Luke was presumed to have been written using Matthew and Mark as its sources. Modern scholars now reject this theory knowing that the Gospel of Mark, not Matthew, was the earliest written canonical Gospel. However, the exclusive relationship between the three texts, especially the near duplication of wording and structure in some parts of Matthew and Luke, still needed to be explained. Wikipedia informs:
The relationships between the three synoptic gospels goes beyond mere similarity in viewpoint. The gospels often recount the stories, usually in the same exact order, sometimes even using the exact same words. Some sections are repeated nearly verbatim… Scholars note that the similarities between the Mark, Matthew, and Luke are too great to be accounted for by mere coincidences. Since multiple eyewitnesses reporting the exact same events will basically never relate a story using exactly the same word-for-word telling, scholars and theologians have long assumed there was some literary relationship between the three synoptic gospels.[xxiv]
Extensive copying between all three texts, which were written separately around 70 CE, turns out to be the result of another document referred to by scholars as Q. Stemming from the German word Quelle, which means “source” in German, historians have postulated that there is a lost textual source for the Gospel of Matthew and Gospel of Luke. This theoretical text is presumed to be a collection of Jesus’ sayings and teachings and was further given credibility with a huge find in Egypt in 1945 near the town of Nag Hammâdi. As the story goes, a local peasant named Mohammed Ali Samman discovered a collection of early Christian Gnostic texts, having stumbled upon several buried jars, all of them sealed. Upon opening the jars the man discovered twelve leather-bound papyrus codices giving birth to The Nag Hammadi library (popularly known as The Gnostic Gospels). Picknett and Prince explain better the importance of the Gnostic texts when they inform:
There are also a large number of fragments of lost works, sometimes referring to sayings or deeds of Jesus that are not in the New Testament, but of roughly the same age. In fact one of the fragments—actually four small scraps of papyrus—in the British Museum and known by the riveting title of ‘Egerton Papyrus 2’ is possibly the oldest surviving document about Jesus in existence.
What is so marvelous about this find is that many of the Gnostic Gospels were dated to roughly the same time as the Synoptic Gospels, the oldest being the Ryland’s fragment of John’s Gospel (circa 125-150 C.E.). The Egerton fragments, a Gnostic text, dated between 90-150 C.E., the same (perhaps older) than the Ryland’s fragment, and shared many of the same verses and sayings of Jesus Christ of the Synoptic Gospels, thus proving that a yet undiscovered third source text must exist—this being the lost Gospel of Q.
Another point worth bringing up is that the majority of the Gnostic Gospels show a much more human portrayal of Jesus Christ. In fact, the Gnostic texts such as the Gospel of Mary (attributed to Mary Magdalene) we find no evidence of any miraculous resurrection, which coincides with the original Gospel Mark and its strange absence of a post resurrection Christ. This may suggest that the resurrection story was added later into the canonical scriptures as some scholars suggest.
What may be more shocking to believers is that modern Christianity does not stem from Jesus Christ at all, but rather, comes from that re-envisioned theology of St. Paul. Not forgetting to mention that almost an entire third of the New Testament is Pauline, a fact we can’t afford to overlook, the discerning Harold Bloom mentions, “Between his priority, his centrality in the text, and his reinvention of much of Christianity, Paul is its crucial founder. Yeshua of Nazareth, who died still trusting in the Covenant with Yahweh, cannot be regarded as the inaugurator of a new faith.”[xxv]
More than this, we cannot neglect the augmentation of Paul’s theology by early church leaders. In the Jesus Dynasty Tabor reminds us, “Although our New Testament gospels contain historical material, the theological editing is a factor that the discerning reader must constantly keep in mind.”[xxvi]
The beginning of these frequent theological alterations stretches back further than The First Council of Nicaea, held in Nicaea in Bithynia convoked by the Roman Emperor Constantine I in 325 CE. By my estimation the Nicene council is the starting point of mainstream Christian theology, the preliminary model of the organized Church, as well as the tradition of theological variation and tautology based off of Pauline Christianity and heavily influenced by Greek Hellenism.
Leading the council was St. Alexander of Alexandria and the ascetic Egyptian theologian Athanasius who convened to resolve disagreements arising from within the Church of Alexandria over the nature of Jesus in relationship to the Holy Father God in terms of divinity—an ontological argument by its very nature.[xxvii] This meeting, along with the second one in 787 CE, would result in the first uniform Christian doctrine, called the Nicene Creed. With the creation of the creed, a precedent was established for subsequent general (ecumenical) councils of Bishops’ (Synods) to create statements of belief and canons of doctrinal orthodoxy—the intent being to define unity of beliefs for the whole of foundling Christendom.[xxviii]
The Nazarene movement led by James, Peter, and John, which was more or less early Christianity in its Jewish form, was undeniably altered by Hellenistic influenced Pauline teachings which would then be the guiding influence behind the later considerations of the Nicene council more than three hundred years after the death of Jesus. The total sum of these changes amount to what modern skeptics point to as the hobbled together, thrice altered, misinterpreted, historically inaccurate, and incontrovertibly human design behind the Bible. Bloom reminds us in his book The American Religion, that this human design, since at the very least humans had to assemble the pages and put the book together, is something we must think about when we think of any holy scriptures. To show, that even before Christian history, that early on there were human artificers behind the word of God, Bloom reflects, “…what we now call the Bible is the result of a complex process of canonization for which the criteria were surprisingly aesthetic, or at least reconcilable with the aesthetic. The Song of Songs is in the Bible because it had enchanted the great Rabbi Akiba…”[xxix]
The Bible does not have so much a divine origin so much as it has a Jewish rabbi author, one among many others, in this case Rabbi Akiba (circa 50 C.E. to 135 C.E.) who chose to include a piece of poetry he liked that would not have made it in otherwise. This broad overview, however, doesn’t catch all of the minute changes and decisions over the course of history which has all led to the currently accepted canon of the Christian Holy Bible and its multiple and anecdotal translations that we know of today.
Most of these ancient writings, including the manuscripts which make up the Gospels, were composed in foreign countries hundreds of miles away from ancient Jerusalem, written in Coptic Greek, a foreign language of a dissimilar culture in a different region of the world more than half a century after the supposed events ever took place. Furthermore, much of what constitutes the New Testament is Pseudepigraphic. This means that virtually all of the Gospels are forgeries. Historians for the past couple centuries have taught this historically supported view as the standard which is taught at virtually all the major education institutions of higher learning, including seminaries and divinity schools. Biblical historian Bart D. Ehrman clarifies further, “A large number of the books in the early church were written by authors who falsely claimed to be apostles in order to deceive their readers into accepting their books and the views they represented.”[xxx] Yet this is only scratching the surface of the dilemma, as Ehrman goes on to add:
And so we have an answer to our ultimate question of why these Gospels are so different from one another. They were not written by Jesus’ companions or by companions of his companions. They were written decades later by people who didn’t know Jesus, who lived in a different country or different countries from Jesus, and who spoke a different language from Jesus.[xxxi]
Finally, Ehrman reminds us that although most scholars are reluctant to label the majority of the New Testament writings forged documents, that in reality, by any definition of the term that’s what they are.
It is worthy to note that early Christians, much as the Christians now, have the tendency to attribute words and sayings to Jesus that in reality only reflect the experience, convictions, and hopes of the Christian community of any one particular era. For theologians to misrepresent Jesus of Nazareth’s intent and meaning by taking it out of the historical context seems unfair, not to mention dreadfully dishonest, when we stop to look at the context and what he is saying and not what we hope him to be saying. Manipulating the meaning of the text, however, is the surest way to create a unity of thought and belief, two important ingredients in any system of faith. Biblical Scholar Bart D. Ehrman phrases it like this:
Most people… assume that since all the books of the Bible are found between the same hard covers, every author is basically saying the same thing. They think that Matthew can be used to help understand John, John provides insights into Paul, Paul can help interpret the book of James, and so on. This harmonizing approach to the bible which is foundational to much devotional reading, has the advantage of helping readers see the unifying themes of the bible, but it also has serious drawbacks, often creating unity of thought and belief where originally there was none.[xxxii]
We might wonder how Christians can pretend to know what they can’t possible know while refusing to correct the errors in print as they continue to ignore the very precise scholarly research, each new archeological discovery, advance in the understanding of ancient Hebrew and Greek languages, and the deep penetrating historical, literary, and textual analyses which lend themselves to a more accurate picture of the overall truth. The offense is doubly felt by the religious historians, who have known better for the past two centuries, and have often tried to correct their Christian brethren of this bad habit of misinterpreting Jewish custom and culture let alone misreading their holy texts for years now. Even with all the obvious errors, however, we may wish to note that Christianity is not the only religious faith chock full of contradictions and riddled with an unsound and highly questionable holy book.
Meanwhile the Hebrew people of Israel believed in keeping covenants between God and man long before the Christians came onto the scene. Historically, as the Essenes, a reclusive sect of Jewish scribes, copied and kept the Jewish stories for posterity, but also held in reserve pagan, Gnostic, and Christian stories as well, cataloged them and stored them on various scrolls in caves for preservation. Surviving the passage of time we have random fragments which assemble to form various myths, fables, and lore of the Hebrew down to the Christians, all of it chronicling a variety of cultures, customs, and beliefs.
Accordingly, the only word of God that the ancient Hebrew peoples believed to be authentic was that which was taken down by the prophet Moses and set in stone. In fact, the Ark of the Covenant, which is said to contain the original stone tablets as brought down to the Israelites by Moses off from Mt. Sinai, may be the only genuine “word of God” to ever exist—If you discount the golden tablets handed down to the Mormon founder Joseph Smith by the angel Moroni (which is pretty easy to discount considering they’re every bit as absent as the god which supposedly wrote them). Yet like the magical golden tablets of the Mormons, the Ark of the Covenant’s existence is dubious at best, if not entirely mythical.[xxxiii]
Sacred texts come and go, but what we can be sure of is that the one and only word of God almighty doesn’t likely exist. The belief in divinely begotten books all hinges on whether or not God of the monotheistic faiths truly exists, and so the claim that one religion or another has a divinely authored text is, in itself, circular reasoning at its finest. The substandard argument goes like this: there’s no proof for God’s existence, except for, low and behold, this book! If this book is the “word of God” then that proves that God must exist in some capacity. Therefore God is real, which opportunely makes this book the authoritative word of God. Thus everything in this book is real because God is real! How convenient for the faithful this chain of tautologies works out in their favor, insufficient as they are. However, I feel this roundabout reasoning is stretching it a bit. This may be understating it, however, since does anyone actually, sincerely, have a defensible claim that their book is the authoritative word of God? Although they like to think so, the answer is obviously no—no they don’t.
On top of this reasoning is a blatant contradiction, since apparently God wasn’t perfect enough to maintain the excellence of his Holy Word for posterity, seeing as over time he allowed his word to become corrupted by mere apes. Besides this, how would some apish ancestors know how to put it all together just so without the aid of a supernatural force of some kind? Paul of Tarsus, the man who penned the majority of the New Testament, believed the Holy Spirit guided and inspired him, while others believed God spoke directly to them.
According to the Muslim faith the Judaic and Christian religious traditions are also sacred, stemming from God, although somehow got misconstrued to the point they were beyond recognition as the word of God. Thus these unfortunately blemished Holy Scriptures needed to be reiterated, restated, and reformed by the Prophet Muhammad, an illiterate Arab merchant of the seventh century, who heard angels whisper sweetly to him in the night and was certain that the sacred texts of the Christians and Jews had all been spoiled and perverted. Muhammad effectively wrote down, or rather dictated to a succession of untrustworthy scribes, his visions and conversations with the supernatural and thus fashioned the amended holy text. According to Islamic tradition the Prophet did so at the behest of angels and Allah (God) himself, to get the definitive final revelation. In the Muslim world this new “improved” version of God’s word is called the Qur’an.
The equally Unreliable Qur’an
Simplifying it down to its lowest common denominator, we could view the Arabian founded religion of Islam as an extension of Christian faith—a radical retooling, if you will, no more controversial than the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Both of these offshoot religions are wide-spread, model their beliefs off of pre-existing Christian ones, have their own unique charismatic Prophets, have millions of followers, believe in (their own version of) Jesus Christ, state there is but one true God, and have holy books which push the acceptable limits of plagiarism, borrowing heavily from Christianity and the Christian Bible (often times verbatim). Of course it’s more complicated than this even.
The added notion that the entirety of scripture is more than mere cultural stories, myths, legends, fables, and historic anecdotes combined with the spiritual values of Judaism is an impression that was hitherto unheard of within Christendom prior to the conversion of Rome to Christianity under Emperor Constantine, however. The Qur’an is unique in that its people have always believed it to be a divine book; almost since its very creation. Yet because the Qur’an borrows a large part of its content from the prior two Monotheistic faiths, when the content of Christianity and Judaism’s religious books are challenged and thoroughly disproved by solid historical, archeological, and scientific research, this doesn’t strengthen the Qur’an’s position as a divine book; as so many Muslims like to pretend. This has led some scholars to cite an apparent weakness in Koranic interpretation due to a lack of better critical thought on the subject. Andrew Rippin, Professor of History and Dean of the Faculty of Humanities at the University of Victoria, British Columbia, also criticizes the lack of critical thought on Islam, offering:
The notion that ‘Islam was born in the clear light of history’ still seems to be assumed by a great many writers of such texts. While the need to reconcile varying historical traditions is generally recognized, usually this seems to pose no greater problem to the authors than having to determine ‘what makes sense’ in a given situation. To students acquainted with approaches such as source criticism, oral formulaic composition, literary analysis and structuralism, all quite commonly employed in the study of Judaism and Christianity, such naive historical study seems to suggest that Islam is being approached with less than academic candor.[xxxiv]
Imagine all of the borrowed parts of the prior two faiths discarded or cut out of the Qur’an completely—can you imagine what would be left worth reading? Anyone who loves literature and has a passion for reading can see the dilemma here. This theoretical exercise of editorship would leave us with little to nothing which would suggest perfection—let alone suggest anything which resembled a book of any kind. Looking at the fragmented skeletal structure of the Qur’an we’d be left with after the surgical removal of Christian and Jewish influences, we’d have only snippets of nonsensical text (the majority of it talking about murder and death), plus numerous theocratic decrees (mostly about penitence and imposed diktats assumedly hailing from a divine authority), and a brief outline of the Prophet Muhammad’s life and military campaigns (with a bit of murder, mayhem, and empire building on the side). Apart from Christianity and Judaism, you’ll notice, there is very little in the Qur’an which would have any relevancy to the modern day Arab; or to present-day humanity. If we should imagine its content separated from that of the faiths which preceded it, on its own minus the Christian and Jewish material it can’t even be considered a good book, how can it possibly be the word of God?
If anything, the common Muslim critique that the Bible is rooted in historical folly whereas the Qur’an is more divinely pure has not stood up in the face of big archeological finds such as the Yemeni Koranic manuscripts and Sana’a fragments which have shown that the Qur’an and the very word of the Muslim god Allah—and so the whole foundation of which Islam sits—has been copyedited repeatedly over the course of history.[xxxv] This has detrimental consequences to the millions of orthodox Muslims who still believe the Qur’an is self-evidently the pristine “word of God.” The commonly shared Muslim belief that the Qur’an is inimitable in message, language, style, and form, and so infallible, is an idea which has been put into serious doubt by the challenges of such recent archeological finds as those mentioned above.[xxxvi]
With some good research and a bit of reflection I realized that divinely inspired texts are impossible. Human minds have decided upon the canons, human hands have tampered with and altered the texts repeatedly over the course of history, and throughout most of which human error has lead to all kinds of religious folly. It is impossible for the Bible, much less the Qur’an, to be a divinely inspired text.[xxxvii] There’s too much historical evidence which shows these books have been tampered with repeatedly, from their initial assembly all the way down to the present day. As Professor Ehrman inquires, I too have often wondered, “Why would God have inspired the words of the Bible if he chose not to preserve these words for posterity?”[xxxviii] So I must concur with Ehrman when he advises, “At the end of the day, the canon is the canon, and there’s little point in thinking how we might want to change it. Better to figure out how to encourage interpretations of it that don’t lead to sexism, racism, bigotry, and all kinds of oppression.”[xxxix] I think this advice rings true of any holy book.
The Muslim Qur’an is also problematic on a grand scale where the virgin birth story is concerned. The Muslim account of the virgin birth is equally as flawed, but much more heavily saturated with Greek mythology. Surprisingly, its very infallibility can be viewed as an irony, since the Koran’s authenticity depends on the Christian interpretation of the virgin birth to be wholly accurate. Knowing that it is not, we might also look into the Koran’s borrowing of the Christian account of Christ’s miraculous virgin birth to uncover more clues as to the made up nature of the religious sponsored myth, and so too, perhaps gain better perspective into the imperfect nature of the Qur’an. When we do this, interestingly enough, we find that the Qur’an borrows indiscriminately as much from the Greek origin myth of Apollo as from the Christian account of the nativity.
Upon further reading we do find the Qur’an’s Virgin Mary story (surah 19.22f) to be distinctly suspect of plagiarism in which the parallel is to be found in the Homeric hymn to the Delian Apollo and his virgin mother Leto. The virgin mothers in both stories quiver and give birth to godly wrought children, respectively. Not only this, in both the Greek myth and Qur’an the divinely seeded mothers give birth under a nearby palm tree, and in each virgin myth, the newborn babies still in infant form, begin speaking in adult language only to continue on to robustly narrate the whole of their predestined destinies (surah 3:49-51).
Astute readers of scripture will find the link between this story of quivering virgins and talking babies in the redaction of Luke. In the Gospel of Luke the fetus of John the Baptist leaps up and clairvoyantly hails the coming of the son of God, still in the womb of his mother Mary, the not yet born Christ (Luke 1:36, 39-45, 56). Of course this messianic zygote story finds its direct parallels in the Greek translation of the Old Testament, the Septuagint, where Rebecca (Gen. 25:22) pregnant with twins, Jacob and Esau, leap within their mother’s womb to gain precedence before birth. The fact that Luke’s John the Baptist mirrors this exact behavior with regards to the coming Christ, and so too the replay of such events in the Virgin Birth nativity found in the Qur’an, should not escaper our attention.
Proclamations made by God promoting his next favored messiah can be found in the Old Testament myths of Moses (Exod. 3:10-11), and Jeremiah (Jer. 1:4-8) likewise. What catches our eye here is a verse in Jeremiah which reflects the ongoing narrative of chosen youth becoming the chosen servant (prophet) of God, in terms of the messianic hero figure, this cannot go overlooked. “Then the word of the LORD came to me, saying: “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you; Before you were born I sanctified you; I ordained you a prophet to the nations.” Then said I: “Ah, Lord GOD! Behold, I cannot speak, for I am a youth.” But the LORD said to me: “Do not say, ‘I am a youth,’ For you shall go to all to whom I send you, And whatever I command you, you shall speak… For I am with you to deliver you…” (Jer. 1:4-8, NKJV). Thus we find exactly what we expect to, threads of myth linking various faiths where messianic infants and children (of virgin mothers) speaking with the authority of God stretching all the way back to Apollo. After considering some of the critical insights we might agree that all this is blatantly legendary, or there is no such thing as a legend at all.
The parallels are so uncanny that to deny that the Koran’s virgin birth story is a borrowing from other myths is to complicate the matter further. First by not only suggesting that Apollo’s origin story is equally as valid as the Koran’s version of Christ (allowing for its nearly identical nature), but also for it inconveniently having happened first. This quandary in Islam could easily be rectifiable by simply making another borrowing and have Apollo be anthropomorphized into another prophet of Allah, although I don’t see why the authors of the Qur’an just didn’t change one of the elements of the Apollo myth and avoid the forgery and infringement controversy altogether. After all, the history of the Qur’an comes long enough after the formation of Christianity, and long after the fall of the Greek pantheon of gods, to know that the Apollo myth was just that—an outdated myth. To confuse it with the story of Christ is a dire error on behalf of Allah, who obviously dictated it wrong to the Prophet Mohammad who in turn dictated it wrong to his copywriter who in turn dictated it wrong to all Muslim peoples.
At any rate, I’m sure Muslims would have a hard time accepting Apollo running around as a character in their story as equally as Christians have a hard time accepting an inaccurate version of their Christ (a shoddily disguised Apollo) running around in the Qur’an. Yet this isn’t as big as a controversy as it initially appears. The Jesus tradition shares many parallels, if not borrowings, from mythic lore of all sorts, not limited to, but including stories attributed to Christ’s infancy.
In the Infancy Gospel of Thomas, there are various stories of the miraculous young god-child, including one in which the child Jesus turns some clay into sparrows. This feat is later incorporated into the Qur’an, not surprisingly enough, where the infantile Jesus narrates his destiny (surah 3:49). We already know that Christ’s birthday (a complete unknown to Biblical scholars) has to be an amalgamation of the Mithras legend superimposed onto Jesus of Nazareth to give him a proper birthday. Moreover, anyone well verse in higher criticism knows that much of Jesus’ Nativity story is most certainly borrowed from the Aramaic source of Daniel. Ever since Alexander the Great opened up the traffic and trade between Greece and the Near East and India, it is by no means unrealistic to suppose Christians and Jews were familiar with Buddhist and Hindu stories, and later Arabs borrowed from all of these and picked from the miscellany to create their own diverse religious stories.
Finally, facing the uphill struggle by way of the steady process of demystification through good scholarly research, we find that what holds together the majority of faith based belief is the myriad of theological assumptions about faith, every one of them varying as to doctrinal interpretation subjected to the fancy of their particular sect, denomination, or religious climate of that region within a particular historical time period. Along with a stubborn adherence to superstitious assumptions sponsored by uneven theology is the willingness to be less than critical when it comes to the subjective elements of age old myths. Regrettably, this illogical trait to avoid critical analysis and stick to unfounded assertions is ever present in most devout religious believers. But in the words of religious scholar and historian Robert M. Price:
The preached figurehead of Christian devotion and dogma is a composite of a Christ who is little more than a mathematical integer in a theological formula, a figure seen in stained glass windows and Sunday school illustrations, and of course, an uncritical reading of the four canonical gospels. The last thing we as critical historians can do is allow the party line of an institution (i.e the creed of a church) to control our reading of the evidence. This is why the vast writings of Christian apologists hold no attraction at all for the critic. The historical critic is conscience-bound to explore the very real possibility that the Christian Jesus has been shaped by the dogmatic agenda of the religion that claims him as a warrant for everything it does.[xl]
Also, these consecutive denials to face the veracity of the substantial evidence we do possess with sincerity and with a sense of integrity is why religion is so often the practice of blind faith and the bane of all rationality.
Perhaps for these reasons, among many more like them, the erudite effort of believers and non-believers alike to uncover the historical truth has helped to reveal the fantastic elements of manmade religion while showing the process of myth-making for what it is—a practice of superstition and an affinity for age old mysticism. The truth of the matter is, religious belief is primarily proliferated and propagated vis-à-vis the ever relentless use of religious dogma, save for that every step of the way religious faith has simultaneously been met by the burden of proof, which it has failed time and time again to defend itself against.
Are the Gospel Stories Reliable?
Next we will examine some of the evidence and scholarship which shows, explicitly, many of the changes in the New Testament and Gospel accounts of Jesus Christ and how they are unreliable. Accounts which shamelessly seek to override genuine history and rewrite it according to the early Christian spiritual views—all of which are out of sync with the historical account of what we can reasonably discern about Christianity. We will look at the arguments which, in my opinion, make it blatantly evident that Christianity was hand tailored myth from the ground up, and so can’t be trusted as historically reliable.
Christians love to conflate and combine various story elements, out of multiple texts, from various works, to rewrite the meaning of the Bible to fit their own ideas of what they feel it ought to mean. As Bart D. Ehrman has suggested,
The idea that Jesus preexisted his birth and that he was a divine being who became human is found only in the Gospel of John; the idea that he was born of a virgin is found only in Matthew and Luke. It is only by conflating the two views that one could come up with the view that became the traditional, orthodox doctrine.[xli]
That only by combining two independently separate stories, out of two different Gospel books, can Christians form a new-fangled belief which conforms to the meaning they want it to, conforming to Christian convictions, thus giving birth to Christian orthodoxy. But Ehrman cautions that when you combine the two rudiments, that:
The distinctive emphases of both are lost. The message of each author is swallowed up into the orthodox doctrine of the incarnation through the virgin Mary. Readers of the New Testament who conflate the two texts have created their own story, one that bypasses the teaching of both Luke and John and proffers a teaching that is found in neither one.[xlii]
This is the first clue that the virgin birth is fiction. Christians are cutting and pasting the bits of story they like best and amending them to mean what they want them to mean. The second clue as to the fictional nature of Christ’s virgin birth is that parthenogenesis[xliii] has never occurred in higher mammals, but on the same token this bit of well known trivia begs us to question the other scriptural accounts of miracles too. Not only because of the obvious inaccuracies contained in the virgin birth story, but the inaccuracies contained in the whole of Biblical scripture. While some of this discrepancy constitutes scientific inaccuracies others include textual errors.
The Bible, and so too the Gospel accounts, consist of highly inconsistent, unreliable textual mistakes, many of which are irreconcilable and the majority of which can hardly be considered trustworthy. This constitutes a huge problem for those who desire to take the meaning of the Bible at face value, especially that of the New Testament. Ehrman goes on to address the issue, detailing, “The problem is in part that the Gospels are full of discrepancies and were written decades after Jesus’ ministry and death by authors who had not themselves witnessed any of the events of Jesus’ life.”
Errors in Print: The Various Biblical Discrepancies
Of the most famous textual mistakes, the most often quoted is a simple translation error in regards to the etymology of the Hebrew word for virgin. As it would appear at first glance, we find the Biblical translators, translating the Hebrew and Aramaic into Greek, and Greek into English, mistakenly got the Hebrew word for virgin wrong. Sam Harris describes it like this:
The writers of Luke and Matthew, for instance, in seeking to make the life of Jesus conform to Old Testament prophecy, insist that Mary conceived as a virgin (Greek parthenos), harking to the Greek rendering of Isaiah 7:14. Unfortunately for fanciers of Mary’s virginity, the Hebrew word alma (for which parthenos is an erroneous translation) simply means “young woman,” without any implication of virginity. It seems all but certain that the Christian dogma of the virgin birth, and much of the church’s resulting anxiety about sex, was the result of a mistranslation from the Hebrew.[xliv]
How did this erroneous translation blunder happen we might wonder? Simply put: plumb human error. Instead the translated Hebrew word `almah, which as stated equates to “young woman” or “maiden” and nothing more, is inadvertently replaced it with the incorrect Greek equivalent of the word virgin, parthenos, in turn being translated into English with a static term encompassing even less ambiguity than the already heavily nuanced parthenos. The obvious error is detailed in full here:
Of the two Hebrew words בתולה (bethulah) and עלמה (`almah), most commentators interpret bethulah as meaning a virgin, and `almah as meaning a nubile young woman. In regular narrative, `almah denotes youth explicitly, virginity is suggested only loosely and implicitly. Hence, some have argued that, strictly speaking, the youth of a mother, not virginity, was all that was suggested by Isaiah.[xlv]
As prior critics have pointed out, the Hebrew verse in the book of Isaiah is rendered into Greek to beget virgins. The well known translation error strictly lies in the hands of poor biblical scholars who misinterpreted the Hebrew word `almah and made it to mean strictly virgin, when it actually means virile young woman. Remember, the word ‘virgin’ in Hebrew is actually bethulah. I sometimes wonder how if we could so easily supplant the wrong word in Biblical scripture, what else must have got lost in translation?
Interestingly enough the term `almah, although having different meanings, was a widely used vocabulary word spread across multiple cultures and regions of the Levant, incorporated by Arabian, Jewish, and Egyptian cultures. The Egyptian usage of the word, for example, implicitly means “belly dancer.” It is clear the context of the original Hebrew would have to be greatly misconstrued to have the implicit meaning render the literal meaning obsolete, but honest historians and linguists have pointed this out mainly for this reason, the error is plain old err. And so we are left with no question about it—the term `almah refers unambiguously to youth and not chastity.
Yet is this simply a matter of mistranslation or is it more complicated? Again Picknett and Prince are at the center of the debate with added insights into the matter.
According to the mistranslation hypothesis, a word in a prophecy of Isaiah about the birth of the Messiah, almah, meaning ‘young woman’, was mistranslated into Greek as parthenos, ‘virgin’. This, the critics argue, shows that the virgin birth idea must have been developed after Jesus’ death… Surprisingly, despite the popular misconception, Greek authors—such as Homer, Euripides and Sophocles—most often used parthenos to signify an unmarried girl, but not necessarily one who hadn’t had sex, and indeed there are many references to the offspring of a parthenos, effectively meaning ‘love child’. In other words, parthenos and almah do basically have the same meaning—and neither meaning virgin! The development of the virgin birth idea is more complex than a simple mistranslation.[xlvi]
Christians must be fearfully praying right about now that the original meaning in fact does not equate to ‘love child’, but regardless of the initial meaning, the fact of the matter is we clearly find it impossible to derive the meaning ‘virgin’ from any of our textual options. In other words, whether a translation error or an accurate rendition (meaning ‘love child’ out of wedlock—which would make more sense when we consider Joseph’s first reaction upon finding a pregnant Mary was to divorce her)[xlvii] we can be positive that the entire ‘virginity’ concept contained within the Gospels is an outright modification and a sneaky attempt to tie Christ to messianic prophecy.
More controversial still, there is the Pandera controversy as proposed by Jane Schaberg, that Mary was pregnant with another man’s child—perhaps a Roman soldier named Pander (whom was rumored to have had sexual relations with Mary mother of Jesus), and also fits with what we know of Joseph’s outrage at his wife’s infidelity, especially if the original meaning of almah really does equate to simple a woman of age, or worse, a harlot. Yet even this latter accusation is not such a far stretch for the imagination, since this entire notion of Mary’s (supposed) lascivious nature arises because of the content of Matthew’s inclusion of four names in his genealogy of Jesus: Tamar (1:3), Rahab (1:5), Ruth (1:5), and Bathsheba (1:6). All of these women were known harlots, which better correlates with the ambiguous terms almah, and the Greek parthenos, which each equate to “maiden” or “young woman” but do not denote chastity or virginity. The truth is, given a better understanding of the available terminology, Jesus Christ’s miraculous virgin birth is simply wrong on all accounts.
Luke’s Error: The Census Debate
While we can reasonably assume Jesus was born of a woman we have come to understand there, in actuality, was no reference to virgins and so the virgin birth of Jesus and the manger story is likely to be a complete fiction. One which is confounded by its own conflicting and discordant chronology. If we are to assume that the Biblical dates imply a historical trustworthiness to the story, and so credibility, then they must coincide with real historical events—which they do not. In getting at the truth of the matter, and to once again borrowing from Hume, we find that, “In our reasoning’s concerning matter of fact, there are all imaginable degrees of assurance, from the highest certainty to the lowest species of moral evidence. A wise man, therefore, proportions his belief to the evidence.”[xlviii]
Consider the census debacle surrounding Luke, then, and the lack of any extra-biblical support which has led us to cite this as an inherent error. I know this is a common target which skeptics have repeatedly attacked as a pristine example of Biblical contradiction before, but it’s worth taking a look at again. Some Christian Biblical scholars have tried to weasel their way out of this problem with barely understandable arguments.
Geisler and Howe, Christian co-authors of the popular anti-skeptics books, reference four key points which they believe better reinforces this unstable parts of the Gospel scriptures. In When Critics Ask: A Popular Handbook on Bible Difficulties, the co-authors bring up other possible reasons why the census date is wrong. The first being because of the strained relations between King Herod and Caesar Augustus in the later years of Herod’s reign. Our attention is then brought to the fact that it is (presumably) understandable that Augustus would begin to treat Herod’s domain as a subject land, and consequently would impose such a census to reign in control. However, this argument is only conjecture, because no historical records claim that this happened at any time in this way, or that it happened because of political rivalry or “strained” relations.
Second, they propose the theory that along with periodic governmental registration there may have been a supplemental census taken later, which was regarded as general policy, therefore allowing Luke to recognize the census as stemming from Augustus. But this assumes as much as the first argument by claiming that the government was behind this census in such a way that it could not be mistaken in the context of history, but we find the event just as obscure as when we first saw it. Third, they cite taxation as a factor which slowed the census down, forcing it to take forty years to complete, thus delaying the census until five B.C.—but where’s the evidence for this? It’s more conjecture. Biblical historian and critic Robert M. Price sets us straight by informing that, “Luke…is found to be in error when compared even with early Christian historians on the question of who ruled as Roman procurator in Galilee around the time of Jesus’ birth: Luke has the later Quirinius, while in fact it was Sentius Saturninus, then Quintilius Varus.”[xlix]
Fourth, and lastly, Geisler and Howe mention that it was not unusual for people to return to the place of their origin, citing a decree by C. Vibius Mazimus which required all travelers to return to their home towns for the purpose of the census. This would make the most sense of their main arguments, except for the fact that Mary and Joseph did not return Nazareth, where they were from, but somehow ended up in Bethlehem (conveniently enough to fulfill a messianic prophecy). Herod the Great’s wrath, and the massacre of innocents, is stated for the reason of their relocation but history shows no account of any such massacre. Modern historians have irrefutably proven that there was no massacre of innocents, it never happened, and Geisler and Howe’s argument seems rather strained and rests upon a hypothesis which doesn’t fit all the historical facts. In his book the Jesus Dynasty James Tabor admits:
We have extraordinarily good historical records from the reign of Herod the Great. It is inconceivable that such a ‘slaughter of the infants’ would go unrecorded by the Jewish historian Josephus or other contemporary Roman historians. Matthew’s account is clearly theological, written to justify later views of Jesus’ exalted status.[l]
In fact, Matthew’s relocation of Joseph and the pregnant Mary to Egypt is no better. This time our evangelical author has our pregnant family flee to Egypt in order to escape the bloodthirsty king, which anybody can tell, is merely an interpolation of the infant Moses’ escape from a bloodthirsty Pharoah. In fact, it’s more complicated than this even, as Price reveals, “The flight of the Holy Family into Egypt has been derived by Matthew, not from legend or early tradition, but rather from exegesis.”[li] Price goes onto explain how this allowed Matthew to draw a parallel between the Joseph of Genesis and his own character Joseph, as well as the two infant saviors, since now both go to Egypt. During this entire hubbub, on their journey back to fulfill the demands of the decree and avoid the supposed massacre of newborns and complete the census and pay their taxes Mary gives birth to Jesus. If the events surrounding Christ’s birth wasn’t miraculous enough, certainly Mary’s putting up with it all was.
Facing these multiple problems gives us a good cause to look for better alternative explanations more proportionate to the evidence. Since we’ve exhausted the all the compelling historical arguments over the census debate, all of them raising more questions than we began with instantly to be hacked down by Ockham’s razor, we must now turn to other possibilities. We must look at personal agendas regarding the modification of the story and its primary text. As Christopher Hitchens boldly points out, there is a much less mysterious reason for this confusion.
…the jumbled “Old” Testament prophecies indicate that the Messiah will be born in the city of David, which seems indeed to have been Bethlehem. However, Jesus’s parents were apparently from Nazareth and if they had a child he was most probably delivered in that town. Thus a huge amount of fabrication—concerning Augustus, Herod, and Quirinius—is involved in confecting the census tale and moving the nativity scene to Bethlehem (where, by the way, no “stable” is ever mentioned)…[lii]
Now, as a Christian reader you may be slightly skeptical about this argument and feel compelled to cite that Hitchen’s theory is as lofty as an assumption as the myriad of ways the census might make sense. However, since we have eliminated the census discrepancies, we must assume the most reasonable clarification is the one which best describes the problem with minimal conjecture. As such, Hitchens hasn’t added to the conjecture, since we already know the problematic nature of the census and of the story, but has offered a hypothesis which addresses several other Biblical problems simultaneously. The need for Jesus to be the Messiah, and the need for him to be a descendant of the bloodline of David, as well as of a virgin birth all are stories hobbled together in a way which leaves problematic discrepancies, which Hitchens suggests stems from amendments and alterations to the text. At once we have a single theory that satisfies multiple discrepancies, and so, it becomes the most reasonable hypothesis to consider.
Since the new theory adjusts itself to include these various considerations as well, it serves as a much more reasonable conclusion than the ones offered us by Geisler and Howe which left them all but untouched. Continuing on the same page Hitchens points out the obvious fabrication which reveals itself within the text, observing:
But why do this at all, since a much easier fabrication would have had him born in Bethlehem in the first place, without any needless to-do? The very attempts to bend and stretch the story may be inverse proof that someone of later significance was indeed born, so that in retrospect, and to fulfill the prophecies, the evidence had to be massaged to some extent.[liii]
Believers everywhere might rejoice that Hitchens, an atheist intellectual, almost admits that Jesus was a historical person, although this would be a bit premature, since he deliberately refuses to name him as the historical figure born. This argument, we should agree, is so far the most rational one which stands up against the evidence. It leaves room for a the historical Jesus of Nazareth while simultaneously debunks the census problem and uncovers the Biblical fabrication all the while pointing to the very apparent Biblical contradiction which started the debate in the first place. Price elucidates:
It is quite clear that neither Matthew nor Luke had any historical memory or tradition to rely on to create their stories of the miraculous Nativity of Jesus. Instead, they wove their stories from Scripture passages reinterpreted or reapplied, as well as from similar stories from contemporary hero tales. And there were very many gods and heroes whom legend made the products of miraculous conception.[liv]
If the prior extrapolation of the translation error for the word virgin wasn’t enough to convince you the Biblical Nativity story was erroneous, then the critical analysis of the historical facts ought to. Clearly the historical facts reveal that we have no reason to believe in Jesus’ virgin birth to be anything other than a work of fiction.
As mentioned earlier, the importance of the Christian virgin birth of the Messiah would seem pivotal in giving support to the mention of Christ’s deity, or it would be, if not for its reluctance to be mentioned even briefly in the first and last of the Gospels. The earliest version of the book of Mark which we know of, and the book of John also called the fourth Gospel, the latter being the only book of the Gospels to directly associate Jesus with the divine,[lv] doesn’t mention the virgin birth at all as support for his divinity. Not to forget to mention, by the way, the conspicuous difficulty of Christ’s miraculous birth not having been brought up at all by the pious Paul. This should surprise us knowing what we know about Paul’s mission to prove Christ as the redeemer and savior of Jews and gentiles alike. Paul who believed ardently in the Messianic prophesy—but apparently not the virgin birth—is a fact which should cause us pause. Was the virgin story unknown to Paul? Or did Paul not include it by selective choice because he didn’t think it applicable or relevant? Paul’s silence on the matter is disconcerting to say the least, especially since Paul’s verification of the events would make the Christian argument for Christ at least coherent. Without it, however, the insinuation is clear—the events were unknown to Paul probably because they had not been invented yet, otherwise Paul would have made an account of them since they would have strengthened his argument for the divinity of the Risen Christ.
Myth-Making Transformations: The Formulation of the Messiah
The Catholic Church itself is the biggest perpetrator in perpetually reasoning away attempts to mend and mold the traditional Christian views and make them solidify and fit with the available facts—something which is becoming increasingly difficult to do with each new archeological find, historical and or cosmological insight. The outrageous depiction of the Mother Mary as an eternal virgin, even though Jesus had numerous brothers and sisters (Mark 6:1-6), is not lost on the rationalist. Additionally, the authors Lynn Picknett and Clive Prince tell us in their revealing book The Masks of Christ, that:
The fact is that Jesus did have blood siblings, and that his mother Mary was not a perpetual virgin, even if she had been intact at the time of her eldest son’s birth—itself an exceptionally unlikely scenario. The Catholic and Orthodox Churches are quite plainly wrong on this subject. One can only conclude that all their arguments on this subject are just fantasy, stemming from their insistence on the embarrassing ‘perpetual virginity’ doctrine, which itself was wishful thinking on the part of the early Church. Surely we have here yet more evidence of an indefensible misogyny and horror of sex and childbirth that is hardly compatible with a respect for all of God’s creation.[lvi]
Just as we know parthenogenesis does not occur in any higher mammalian species, we know that virgins do not spontaneously produce entire sets of offspring (since this would mean all of Jesus’ brothers and sisters were divinely begotten children of God also). The conundrums surrounding the blessed Mother Mary do not end here, however. The misapplication of the ‘Magnificat’, the little poetic song which seeks to elevate the blessed virgin to the same miraculous level as her son, was misappropriated and wrongly attributed to the mother of Jesus.
Today scholars point out the fact that there is overwhelming evidence which shows the Magnificat was originally Elizabeth’s song, and was proclaimed in honor of her son, John the Baptist.[lvii] Robert M. Price goes on to add that the context of the song can’t possibly be about Mary to being with, since it was Elizabeth’s long barrenness which brought reproach upon her, so the removal of barrenness is Elizabeth’s problem, not Mary’s.[lviii] Yet for all the steadfast theologians toiling away at ontological riddles, tweaking their theories to better fit their assumptions (instead of the facts), this hoped for hardening or formation of any real evidence has not occurred, and the theologians’ best attempts have never formed a reliable proof for their doctrinaire claims.
Believers tend to brush such scriptural discrepancies aside, either because they don’t know about them or they hope that nobody will notice the glaring problems. But where scriptural integrity is at stake, and to a greater extent the theological claims it purports to affirm, this is not something we can readily do. If the Gospel accounts are at all to be believably accurate then brushing the inaccuracies under the rug doesn’t solve the irreconcilable problems. Nevertheless, this what religious interpreters, apologists, and theologians have always outwardly done. As we can plainly see, there are numerous conflicts and errors which demonstrate that Jesus’ virgin birth story was completely a myth grafted on to his life story to fit messianic prophecy, and although the evidence has revealed the belief in Jesus Christ’s virgin birth to be entirely fictitious, this hasn’t stopped the most ardent believers from professing a confidence that it still happened anyhow.
Was Jesus a Divine Jew, a Royal Jew or a Regular Jew?
Whether a biblical historian or Christian apologist, our best guesses just don’t have the necessary evidence to reveal the truth of the matter. But even so, this doesn’t mean we don’t have any facts worth mentioning. The wealth of textual evidence surrounding the virgin birth difficulty are some of the essential clues which lends credence to the belief that Jesus was not divinely conceived, and so, probably not a superman, and maybe not a very important man in his day. If Jesus was as an important of a figure as the Gospels tend to make him out to be, we can understand that Paul and the other Gospel writers would have had to agree unanimously on this point of scriptural contention, namely that the virgin birth happened at all or else didn’t. This must be settled before we can expediently convene on the theological premise that Jesus Christ was the Son of God and the chosen Messiah.
The stark historical details and the absence of any accord suggest that the authors of Matthew and Luke were attempting to tie Davidic genealogies to a messianic message complete with virgin birth story. They were artistically combining myths to create a fiction, which fit well within the parameters of Jewish folklore, as a way to tell their own distinct messiah stories. This would explain why there is no mention of Jesus’ virgin birth in either of the texts written prior and hither to these two uncoordinated Gospel accounts.
Another frequently glossed over problem revolves around the genealogies offered in Matthew and Luke which give flagrantly different lines of descent for Jesus ancestry. Multiple other problems arise too. Given the milieu of historical data we have to check the claims against there would have to be agreement with the author of Mark as well as Paul, who of all people surely would have known Jesus’ true origins since Paul had met Jesus’ brother James face to face and knew the family of Jesus of Nazareth personally. The fact that there is no mention of Mary’s immaculate conception and virgin birth outside of Matthew and Luke alerts us to the fact that it may be entirely bogus, and so, it is not difficult to see why Paul deliberately excluded any mention of it.
Coming back to Lynn Picknett and Clive Prince, the authors again bring to our attention to the Gospel’s inconsistency, this time in reference to the discordant genealogies in Matthew and Luke, honing in on the bits which unquestionably show that the messianic virgin birth is purely fabricated.
Matthew and Luke’s tracing of Jesus’ Davidic descent to Joseph leads to a major contradiction with their assertion that Jesus was literally the son of God. Both insist on his divine conception but then blithely undermine their own claim by providing evidence of his very mortal descent. The writers were clearly desperate to have it both ways.[lix]
Continuing on, Picknett and Prince write:
To be the Messiah, Jesus had to have been descended from David, but to be the Christian Christ he had to be the Son of God. (Paul, in one of his few pieces of information about the earthly Jesus, wrote that he was descended from David ‘according to the flesh’, and said nothing about a miraculous conception or birth.) Mainstream Christianity, however, has simply ignored the discrepancy—maintaining that both accounts of Jesus’ ancestry are true, even though they are blatantly irreconcilable.[lx]
The theory that the virgin birth myth was an amendment to the middle Gospels by later Christians seems to be the more probable conclusion for a couple of reasons. First, we can’t assume the Jewish community who Jesus of Nazareth was a prominent member of would hold him in any greater esteem than as a servant of God (Ebed Yahweh in Hebrew). Jesus’ own brother, James the Just, surely didn’t worship him as divine.
Theologians all too often take Jesus’ vague response in Matthew 22:41-46 as a reference to Lordship, citing of verse to be in accord with King David’s vision in Isaiah, an allusion to the “Christ” whom supposedly is the one who sits at the right hand of the Lord. Here we find the Christian’s theological tampering an uncomfortable attempt to force Jesus’ words into a meaning not at all at ease with the custom or culture of the Jewish people of his own time. Jesus’ tone of authority in this controversial verse comes from the fact that he is tirelessly rebuking the Pharisees whom, in his eyes, had strayed from the truth of the Torah, the Hebrew word of God on earth before it was hijacked and re-arranged, edited, and several times mistranslated, amended, and finally turned into the “Old” Testament familiar to Christians.
Traditionally the usage of the term Lord was used for anyone of respectability and great eminence, a holy man who served the will of God, and certainly through scriptural analysis we can discern that Jesus was a servant of Yahweh and a Jewish spiritual leader. But for Christ to be exalted as Lord and the Son of God is not a reference to divinity but rather an acknowledgement of his position and function as a holy leader, namely a Jewish servant of God. Christians often make the historically inaccurate mistake of misreading the term ‘Lord’ in Matthew 22:41-46 to be synonymous with Lord God, thus connecting Christ’s authority to God’s while implicitly hinting that Jesus Christ is God. As Professor Bart D. Ehrman observes:
It is important to know that for ancient Jews the term “son of God” could mean a wide range of things. In the Hebrew bible the “son of God” could refer to the nation of Israel (Hosea 11:1), or to the King of Israel (1st Samuel 7:14). In these cases the son of God was someone specially chosen by God to perform his work and mediate his will on earth.[lxi]
About the son of God debate, Ehramn goes on to add that in the book of Mark Jesus is not considered God and never actually claims to be. But this projecting of Christian aspirations has distorted the historical usage of the Hebrew term for Lord, and the usage of son of God, and taking them both out of their Jewish context. Predictably, the modern Christian reading is completely irrelevant because it is indisputably out of context.
Since Jesus was a Jew who lived in first century Palestine, any tradition about him has to fit in his own historical context to be plausible. Lots of our later Gospels—written in the third or fourth century, in other parts of the world—say things about Jesus that do not make sense in his own context. These things can be eliminated as historically implausible.[lxii]
My argument so far has been to show how these sorts of theological surmises and postulating and placing the stamp of divine authority onto Jesus Christ is highly irregular when taking the full course of traditional history into consideration. There is no servant of the God of Abraham, whether Jew or Muslim, who would claim co-eternal existence with the mono-deity of their faith. As such, for a Jew to make such a claim as that which would set him on an equal plain of power and authority as Yahweh would have been considered the ultimate crime of blasphemy not to mention an insult to God. I doubt Jesus would have been such a badly behaved Jew, even if we are to assume he was a radical during his own time.
Furthermore, these innately Christian claims of Christ’s deity seek to bring the impossible into being without any reliable explanation, but simply as a matter of faith based acceptance. It should be no surprise that many of these impossible claims are typically antithetical to the traditional mode of Judaic custom of the time, and also, imposes a very Christian misreading and misrepresentation of Jewish culture to fit a very Christian desire to follow through with messianic prophecy and make Christ the prophesied Son of God. And this is conjecture, coupled with poor critical reading skills, not to mention an ill-founded understanding of history, or else the blatant disregard for it.
Even if we were to assume the real historical Jesus, at one time, really did recite the words mentioned in Matthew 22:41-46 in rebuttal to the Pharisees inquiry, and that this information was orally passed along until being written down, we can be certain he was not speaking about the fulfillment of any prophecy. His “Davidic” genealogy, at that point, had not been invented by the New Testament authors yet. To take the words to mean what Christians think it means is to take them out of the context of the Jewish practices of the day. Instead, Jesus was most likely sending a strict message to the Pharisees telling them that they had strayed from the true path as men of God, and so insults their exalted status by claiming that even a vagabond like himself is a better Lord, a better servant of God, than they were. In context, Jesus’ reply directly confirms his chosen role as a servant of Yahweh, according to the allotted parameters of Judaic tradition, while chastising the Pharisees for failing their God appointed duties.
Readers must keep in mind that this particular verse is strictly in point of reference to the original Torah and the role of a servant of Yahweh, a respected religious figure or holy leader. Tampering with the genealogies and molding them to fit messianic prophecy, however, cannot be considered a fulfillment of Davidic Prophecy by Jesus’ own perspective and time. In other words, the Christian interpretation of the verse is obviously a forced effort to denote consanguinity and simultaneously make it be the implicit claim to godly authority. However, any astute reader will be quick to notice this endeavor to form a messianic meaning—only after having hijacked the Jewish text and altering it—thus overstepping the boundaries of what text itself allows for. As a consequence, Christians have conveniently constructed the implied meaning that Jesus is both the Messiah and the divine son of God by manipulating the meaning of the texts, sometimes drastically, to align with their devotional conviction that he was the Son of God. This same pattern of tampering with the text to make Jesus fit the Messiah archetype continues throughout the pages of the New Testament, and it is a big clue that shows us how desperately early Christians wanted people to believe this message, except for the fact that their tampering with it shows that it wasn’t factual but concocted, then promoted and advertised as the truth only much later.
Damage Control: Making an Indignant Jew into the Saintly Christ
One question which often comes up is why, having access to the real historical truth and knowing what we know, do Christians continue making their defenses while relying on inaccurate history? Coming to our aid on this question is Picknett and Prince, who once again pinpoint the anomaly. In discussing the verse in Mark of Christ’s first public healing of a leper, the authors detail changes made of Christ’s character from one which depicts a very different Jesus from the one Christians know and love. The original version of Mark shows a Jesus who is described as being indignant and filled with anger upon having to heal a leper, where the later alteration of the text lightens the tone and changes Jesus character not at all in a slight way. Picknett and Prince cite that:
As part of their image damage-limitation, some early manuscripts of Mark have totally transformed ‘moved with anger’ into the much more acceptable ‘filled with compassion’. But while it is easy to see why early Christians changed anger to compassion, it would be very odd to do it the other way round. Nevertheless, many modern translations use the ‘compassion’ version, which is no doubt more comforting for their readers.[lxiii]
Answering the question of why Christians put their trust in unreliable texts is the fact that it comforts them. Jesus was molded to fit the hero pattern, and his story was amended to do exactly that, give us a savior worth rooting for. Nobody would rightly choose to follow an indignant hateful Jew who constantly showed prejudice toward gentiles and drank too much alcohol. By diminishing Christ’s negative attributes, or writing them out all together, aids in the religious agenda to sponsor him as the perfect Son of God and compels the people to venerate the larger than life figure. As often is the case, we find an almost unwavering sort of hero worship in regards to the religious infatuation with Christ. Christians would rather have the heroic and compassionate Christ than the angry and indignant one. They would rather have a wise rebellious sage than a constantly drunk and seditious Jew (Matt. 15:1-16, Luke 7:34, etc.). Yet changes like these reveal that there is more to meets the eye and that not everything in the Biblical scriptures is as it seems.
Is Jesus Christ merely a work of Fiction?
C.S. Lewis, Christianity’s great apologist, offered the premise that Jesus Christ could have been one of three possible things. Either he was a liar, lunatic, or lord. Of course C.S. Lewis is famous for his ability to reason out an answer which effectively dismisses liar and lunatic, arriving at the much championed answer that Jesus was, in essence, divine Lord. Yet Lewis, as pointed out by honest critics, is dealing in half truths. There is in fact an option Lewis deliberately avoids: Jesus may have simply been a legend, at the very least, legendary. Certainly his life’s story was exaggerated to mythic proportions, but this is not something you’ll likely hear apologists admit to as they slyly attempt wriggle around the slew of biblical discrepancies.
When we do reflect on the ramifications that we can’t really know Jesus’ genuine date or true place of birth; a historical riddle which most biblical scholars have deemed impossible to figure out—which would make sense if Jesus was merely legendary. What cannot go overlooked are the striking parallels of Jesus’ origin story with the Mithras myth. And so, December 25th is an important date, not only because it was a major holiday celebrated throughout the Roman Empire, Brumalia, the eighth and greatest day of the Feast of Saturnalia, but also because it was the birthday of the ancient son god Mithras. This celebration seems to be overlaid onto Jesus’ origin story to give him an official birthday, to make his story seem more feasible, and perhaps to link him to the heroic figures of antiquity, especially Dionysus, Adonis, and Horus who all shared the same birthday. Also fitting is that Brumalia marked the winter solstice according to the old Julian calendar, thus marking the end of the year when the crops would wither and die only to be brought back to life the next harvest, which leads us to venture a guess that Christ’s death and resurrection was all simply a symbolic of the death and rebirth of the seasonal harvest coupled with the retelling of these admired and enduring myths. Even C.S. Lewis acknowledged this much, often referring to Christ as a “Corn God.”
Yet even these assumptions don’t lead us out of the woods. Anyone who considers all the available data should also ponder the implications of such overwhelming evidence concerning the textural and historical inaccuracies of Gospel accounts of Jesus, as such veritable evidence must put the veracity of any sacred text into question. Not only is all this a significant cause for concern, but the distinct lack of definitive evidence, more specifically the lack of non-Christian and extrabiblical evidence surrounding the total claims on the subject of Jesus Christ’s divinity, powers, and even plain old existence, predisposes us to be highly skeptical of the inconclusive and inharmonious accounts of Jesus Christ’s historicity, origin, death, and post-death resurrection.[lxiv]
The “evidence” with which Christian devotees like to cite as lending credence to their assumptions about the resurrection fail to meet the prerequisites of reliability and the issue of veracity arises all over again. Flavius Josephus’ Antiquity of the Jews (written around 37-100 A.D.) is often cited as a first century source for Christ’s resurrection, but Biblical scholars unanimously agree that this document seems to have been amended with a later evangelical forgery (as a comparative analysis of handwriting—paleography—and analysis of linguistic structure has revealed), and that the mention of Christ and his resurrection is purely fabrication.[lxv] The “eye witness” accounts of the Gospels, another popular Christian support, are recorded by third party non-eyewitnesses who are jotting down the testimonies of others who heard from so and so who said that they knew so and so who knew somebody who knew James, the Brother of Jesus, and so on and so forth. Even if there is a grain of truth behind them, such accounts can hardly be considered reliable.
Even the early Christian leader Papias claimed that the Gospel texts of Matthew and Mark contained a “word of mouth” style may be grossly inaccurate as it is more likely Papias was mistaken, having quoted an early Ebionite work called the Preachings of Peter[lxvi]—thus confirming that, like the rest of the texts, there has been ongoing misreading and misinterpretations from the beginning to the end of Gospel ascendancy. Robert M. Price expounds:
Since we have no text of Papias at all and no manuscript of Irenaeus as old as Eusebius, it becomes reasonable to treat the passages we have quoted from Papias and Irenaeus as no older than Eusebius’s Ecclesiastical History. For us, they are no more than apolgetical garnishes to that fourth-century treatise and may be no older. The same holds good for the famous Testimonium Flavium attributed to Josephus: it certainly did not appear in the edition of Josephus read by Origin in the early third century.[lxvii]
Other early Christian writings are often cited as well, from Tacitus (writing in 120 A.D.) to Suetonius (circa 138 A.D.), to Thallus who is only referenced by Julius Africanus some two hundred years later, and Plinly the Younger and so on, but all of them are spurious at best. In many of the early writings the Messiah is mentioned, but Jesus himself is often unnamed. Although, as historians have observed, Jesus was the latter in a long line of “chosen” prophecy fulfilling, miracle working, wonder Messiahs including Messiah ben Joseph and Simon bar-Kochba, and he wasn’t the last either. The old world’s obsession with a savior extended onward immediately after the death of Jesus as his doppelganger, and contemporary, Simon Magus of Samaria proved with his quarrel with the Apostle Peter. We can rest assured that such demonstrations lead us to conclude that evidently there was no shortage of supposed Messiahs before or after the life of Jesus.
Is the Resurrection Account of Christ Fallacious?
Unknown scribes who composed the original Gospels were writing down and piecing together the strands of Christian hearsay half a century or more from the events of the resurrection itself. Most of these writings, including the Gospel accounts, were composed in foreign countries hundreds of miles away from ancient Jerusalem, written in Coptic Greek, a foreign language of a dissimilar culture in a different region of the world decades after the supposed events of the life, death, and resurrection ever took place. Contrary to what the religious might espouse, this sort of “evidence” is the opposite of reliable. And if the historical account is untrustworthy, at least as undependable as it appears to indeed be, it is inadequate to rely on the Biblical resurrection account as attestation to the Christian presumption that Jesus was divine.
Even so, if miracles are to be considered real then the greatest miracle of all, next to a genuine virgin birth which we know could not have happened, would have to be coming back to life after death, which we know cannot occur. If Jesus did it, then this would definitively prove he was the Messiah, although it may or may not prove that he was necessarily the Son of God. According to the Biblical historian James D. Tabor in his book The Jesus Dynasty, Jesus may have in fact been revived and resuscitated via means of a primitive remedy of herbal medical healing, and if so, this could be seen as a miraculous resuscitation of life. Tabor feels this resurrection from the brink of death would be enough to convince the apocalyptic Jewish prophet himself that he was the Son of God. Before he lets the notion settle in our minds, however, Tabor reiterates one very important and oft overlooked fact, which may shed light on whether or not Jesus was thought of as divine by those around him, affirming, “There is no evidence that James worshipped his brother or considered him divine.”[lxviii] If Jesus’ own brother, James the Just, who knew Jesus intimately and outlived him, eventually taking over leadership roles in the early Christian movement, never once worshipped his kin as the Son of God then we should perhaps question why this was so.
Likewise, the original fragments of the Gospel of Mark, considered by historians to be the first of the Gospels to have been written, does not contain the virgin birth or post resurrection stories either.[lxix] It is only in latter century alterations does the Gospel of Mark later get augmented to fit into the canonical whole—albeit misplaced and shoved in behind Matthew to smooth over the difficulty. This is another curious phenomenon which should cause us pause when we consider the two books of Matthew and Luke, which borrow heavily from Mark, have additions not contained in Mark or even in Paul’s earliest writings. Furthermore, the current consensus among scholars is that verses 9–20 in Mark were not part of the original text of Mark but represent a very early addition. Explaining the reason for adding the verses, Bart D. Ehrman relates:
Jesus does rise from the dead in Mark’s Gospel. The women go to the tomb, the tomb is empty and there is a man there who tells them that Jesus has been raised from the dead and that they are to go tell the disciples that this has happened. But then the Gospel ends in Codex Sinaiticus and other manuscripts by saying the women fled from the tomb and didn’t say anything to anyone because they were afraid, period. That where the Gospel ends. So nobody finds out about it, the disciples don’t learn about it, the disciples never see Jesus after the resurrection, that’s the end of the story. But later scribes couldn’t handle this abrupt ending and they added the 12 verses people find in the King James Bible or other Bibles in which Jesus does appear to his disciples.
What does this mean for the everyday practicing Christian? A lot actually. If Jesus wasn’t virgin born, as Paul neglects to mention it entirely (and only ever alludes to the spiritually resurrect Christ), along with the first fragments of the Gospel of Mark, which Christians love to site as evidence for their desire to have “eye-witness” testimonies which lend support to their debonair claims, in fact does the opposite by detracting from it. The Gospel of Mark, in its original form, neither has the virgin birth or resurrection accounts of Jesus Christ, and so these sources cannot lend credence to Christ’s divinity. This discrepancy, however, points to a major rearrangement, augmentation, and addition to the Gospel texts by its unknown authors and this dilemma has certainly kept the theologian up at night baking up new ways to rectify this controversial detail.
Trying to place the resurrection of Christ into a historical framework is another troubling area of debate since the only official commentary of it comes from the unreliable Jewish Historian Josephus Flavius. Even the Gospels are not in harmony on the subject, as Tabor is quick to remind us that, “As shocking as it may sound, the original manuscripts of the gospel of Mark report no appearances of the resurrected Jesus at all!”[lxx] Granted this is the case, we might try to find a triangulation in other historical texts, even though contemporaneous sources external to the Gospels usually give very little information about Jesus.
Explaining it another way, we can no more know that Jesus was resurrected from the dead than we can know if Julius Caesar was born by caesarian section. Both claims, due to their lack of historical evidence are in every respect uncertain. The presupposition of the resurrection event turns out to be completely unreliable, for several reasons: 1) the Gospel accounts are internally divergent and are dissimilar (i.e. Matthew has the dead rise from their graves and parade along with Jesus down the city streets whereas no other Gospel account contains sightings of the undead (Matt. 27:52-53 NKJV), which reads: “and the graves were opened; and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised; and coming out of the graves after His resurrection, they went into the holy city and appeared to many.” Did Jesus go to Bethany or Jerusalem immediately after his resurrection? Was the last supper the day of Passover or the day before? Did the temple curtain rip before or after Christ’s death upon the cross? Etc.); 2) are often incongruous with one another (i.e. how many women witnesses were there to Christ’s crucifixion and who were they? Apparently, none of them were women, unless of course you believe Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code. Were there angels or men or no one at all guarding the empty tomb? Who was the first to see the resurrected Christ? Etc.); 3) and frequently contradict each other when it comes to detailing the events surrounding the resurrection (i.e. Judas committed suicide and died but didn’t according to Paul, Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus never happened even though it is attested to in John, there was a full eclipse of the sun but in reality there wasn’t, in Matthew 27:28 Jesus is given a scarlet robe but according to Mark 15 and Jonh 19 he is given a purple robe, at his trial before Pontius Pilate in Matthew 27 Jesus doesn’t answer a single charge at his hearing yet in John 18 Jesus answers all charges at his hearing, and in the case of the original book of Mark Jesus never resurrected at all, and Paul who never states a single historical fact about Jesus and knows nothing of his miracles or personal life is dead certain that the resurrection occurs—which smells fishy if you ask me—and the rest). Professor Price lends his significant insights once more, informing, “The Gospels comes under serious suspicion because there is practically nothing in them that does not conform to this “Mythic Hero Archetype,” no “left-over” secular information such as we find with Caesar Augustus and a few others, which serves to tie them into the fabric of history.”[lxxi] Therefore the Gospel accounts are not to be trusted.
One might say Jesus died for our sins, rose from the grave after three days and three nights, and resurrected, but such claims cannot be properly vindicated chiefly because these religious claims are untestable. Since we can have little to no accumulation of authentic or trustworthy evidence for the support of such audacious claims, this makes the claim that Jesus rose from the dead completely unreliable. As such, the majority of religious beliefs lie outside of the realm of what it means to be factual. Scientific theories, on the other hand, surprise us time after time with their ability to justifiably meet the preconditions of what it means to be factually true. And so, Jesus Christ’s resurrection can never be declared a true event expressly because it cannot hold itself up to the scientific standards of testability and confirmation. The resurrection claim lacks the attributions of truth necessary to be considered a scientific fact, let alone historically factual.
Belief in Jesus
Of what there is outside the Christian account—namely Josephus, Tacitus, Suetonius, and Pliny the Younger—these fragments don’t aid us quite enough to make the radical leaps in faith theologians and Christian apologists love to make. Certainly the absence of any real consistent or precise evidence is not enough to warrant a firm belief in a historical Jesus Christ let alone a miraculous one. Of the genuine historical truth about Jesus (who I personally am confident existed for numerous logical reasons) there are only three basic points which the modern Biblical scholars can seem to come to any agreement on. That is, we can only garner three historical facts about Jesus Christ’s life with any confidence. They are, 1) there was a first century apocalyptic Jewish rabbi who fits the description of Jesus of Nazareth, 2) he was acquainted with John the Baptist, 3) and he was sentenced for crimes of insurrection against the Roman state and put to death. These three points are every single historical detail we truly know about the man millions of Christians worship as the Son of God.
At the very least, we should agree with David Strauss’ assessment in Life of Jesus Critically Examined, in which he offers, when looking at all the evidence the very best we can deduce is that there was perhaps a historical figure named Jesus who underwent a myth-making transformation propelled by messianic expectations of the Jewish people. Things got legendized and then historized. This is the dominant theory most modern historians and religious critics seem to agree on today. So when believers inform that they “know” for certain that Jesus died and resurrected for our sins, what they mean to say is this is what we believe about Jesus, which is not the same as what we can reasonably know of him.
The Judas Enigma: Legendary Fiction and the Unbelievability of Judas Iscariot
Throughout history almost every culture’s folklore has had a trickster or devil character. These are the mischievous problem causers who often pull the wool over our eyes, challenge the protagonist, and give us a good yarn. It’s true that no hero would be complete without his opposite and rival force, that is to say their infernal foil. Without Wiley E. Coyote the Road Runner would just be aimlessly jogging around the desert with nobody to meep meep! at. Without Loki the Norse God Thor would just be a disgruntled dude with a big hammer. Without the Joker Batman would just be the most mentally unbalanced superhero of all time. Without Tom there would be no Jerry. Interestingly, I feel this is where Christianity lacks the most; in its desperate need for there to be one true villain. Rather, the antagonists’ roles are divided between historical figures like the Great King Herod, Pontius Pilate, and the more legendary or mythological characters of Judas Iscariot and Satan.
I consider Judas Iscariot a legendary figure, more fiction than fact, simply because all we do know is that he maybe was an Apostle to Jesus Christ. Historically speaking we do not know whether he truly betrayed Christ or not. The Bible may say he did, but here is where part of the problem lies. The Bible isn’t always internally reliable and should not be trusted as the definitive word without further investigation of the uncovered evidence. So let us look at what some of the evidence is and what it reveals about the Judas figure of Christian storytelling traditions. As we shall see, these added insights will also prove that Judas Iscariot is a fictional character, at the very least a legendary figure without historical ties.
Gnostic Christian tradition as well as Islam suggests Judas died in place of Christ upon the cross, that in actuality it was Judas Iscariot who died for mankind’s sins.[lxxii] This coincides with the idea that Jesus had a twin brother, which according to the Gospel of Thomas, a third century Gnostic text, names Judas Dydimus as the apostle Thomas. According to Biblical historian and New Testament scholar Bart D. Ehrman, in his book Lost Christianities, he affirms, “The name Thomas is an Aramaic equivalent of the Greek word Didymus, which means “twin.” Thomas was allegedly Jesus’ identical twin, otherwise known as Jude (Mark 6:3), or Didymus Judas Thomas.”[lxxiii] If true, it would be easy to see how all the confusion arises as to whether Judas (Thomas the twin) or Jesus really did or did not die on the cross. Yet most Christians deny these apocryphal accounts of the Christian story as it is not canonical, so let’s keep these conflicting variations in mind as we consider the various accounts as rigorously as possible.
The bulk of these divergent accounts of Judas’ death are contained in the Christian scriptures, and another resides in Christian oral tradition. If we include extra biblical Christian sources such as the long lost Gnostic text of the Gospel of Judas, of Judas Iscariot’s deaths there are a total of five separate death scenarios including: 1) death by hanging, 2) death by plummeting to the bottom of a dry well or field and meeting his demise, 3) death by getting run over by a chariot and being split in two in gory detail, 3) death by getting stoned to death by the other disciples, and finally 5) Judas dies upon the cross in place of Jesus as mentioned about in the Judas debacle above.
Ehrman is keen to point out, “More interesting yet is the question of what happened to Judas after he performed the act of betrayal. Mark and John say nothing about the matter: Judas simply disappears from the scene.”[lxxiv] And as we already know, disappearing characters such as talking snakes are a sure sign of myth or fable. At any rate, according to Christian scripture immediately after betraying the Messiah Judas Iscariot takes it upon himself to die two different ways two different times. According to the Gospel of Matthew (27:3-10) of the New Testament, Judas feeling distraught over his betrayal of the savior proceeds to hang himself. Whereas the book of Luke (22:3) claims Judas was possessed by Satan and enacted the evil deed before taking his own life (presumably driven mad by his supernatural demonic possession), meanwhile the book of Acts (1:18) claims that Judas fell down in a field where he “burst asunder in the midst, and all his bowels gushed out.” These two Biblical accounts are inconsistent and incongruous with each other, and as such, negate each other’s probability of either one being a trustworthy account.
Similarly to Luke’s account in Acts, the recovered Papias fragment of the early Christian leader Papias, writing roughly seventy years after the first Gospels were written (circa 110-140 CE), confirms this claim of Judas lying split open in a nearby field, albeit it this time death by chariot. In a slight variation of the theme, Papias points out, “Judas walked about in this world a sad example of impiety; for his body having swollen to such an extent that he could not pass where a chariot could pass easily, he was crushed by the chariot, so that his bowels gushed out.”[lxxv] Last but not least, the Gnostic Gospel of Judas (9:7-8) tells that the other disciples stoned Judas for his traitorous act.
Now common sense logic dictates that Judas could have died but in just one way. Three, four, or even five deaths for the same man are literally impossible, unless everyone is mistaken, or else, he resurrected multiple times only to die again and again repeatedly, each time with increasing disparity, which is even more unfeasible. In Raymond E. Brown’s An Introduction to the New Testament the Biblical scholar states that the contradictory accounts of the death of Judas are an example of an obvious contradiction in the Gospel texts, observing, “Luke’s account of the death of Judas in Acts 1:18 is scarcely reconcilable with Matthew 27:3-10.”[lxxvi]
If you are the type of believer who believes in Biblical inerrancy than this overwhelming contradiction needs to be confronted. In fact, many have tried to amend or harmonize the events by supplementing conjecture or theory as to the timing or particular details of the death of Judas the betrayer. Bart D. Ehrman retorts:
Over the years readers have tried to reconcile these two accounts of the death of Judas. How could he both hang himself and “fall headlong” so that his stomach split open and his intestines spilled all over the ground? Ingenious interpreters, wanting to splice the two accounts together into one true account, have had a field day here.[lxxvii]
The bottom line is, without altering the literal interpretation of the available text with ad hoc theological assumptions, it remains a blatant contradiction of scripture. “The point is,” Ehrman goes on to explain, “that the two reports give different accounts of how Judas died. However mysterious it may be to say he fell headlong and burst open, at the least that is not “hanging” oneself.”[lxxviii] Judas died by hanging or else fell to his gut splattering demise, and as Ehrman has pointed out, having one’s neck broken by the noose and being asphyxiated is noticeably not the same as being disemboweled.
Adding to the confusion are the extrabiblical accounts which state he was stoned to death by his compatriots, flattened and sawed in two by a razor sharp speeding chariot, magically vanished in the confusion of the aftermath of Jesus’ arrest, or died upon the cross in lieu of the Christ. All of these simultaneously, or as alternate scenarios for the same sequence as I have heard it suggested (i.e. being stoned, escaping, hanging himself, slipping out of the noose only to get run over and cut into bits, bowels gushing out, etc.), is not a sufficient answer to the problem given the information we have. This is not Alfred Hitchcock’s version of The Trouble with Harry we are talking about.[lxxix]
More precisely, the Bible itself does not say that Judas brutally died by multiple methods of violence inflicted upon him, it specifically says he died once and gives various, conflicting accounts of it. This irreconcilable difficulty was one of the points that caused C. S. Lewis in his letter to Clyde S. Kilby to reject the view “that every statement in Scripture must be historical truth.”[lxxx] Accordingly, in view of what we now know, we must assume Judas Iscariot is a legend loosely veiled around, at the most, an unknown Apostle who may have followed Jesus, but all that is truly known of him is not accurate and may altogether be false, making Judas Iscariot purely a legendary figure.
If the canonical accounts of Judas’ multiple deaths cancel each other out, what are the odds that the death in the Gnostic source is the accurate one? It’s highly improbable, and so it is just as unlikely that any of them are true depictions of Judas Iscariot’s demise since it is inevitably always going to be four to one odds against any of them being right. And yet Judas’ literary importance is a genuine one, for he acts as a true foil for the heroic Christ and puts the moral into the story. Without Judas’ kiss and betrayal of Jesus there could be no atonement, no redemption, the story would just end with Jesus being arrested for his crimes, and where’s the moral in that? As for the historical relevancy of the betrayal itself, Elaine Pagels and Karen L. King, authors of Reading Judas: The Gospel of Judas and the Shaping of Christianity, have this to say:
Even when dealing with events they knew had happened… the gospels writers searched through the Jewish Scriptures for prophecies that seemed to fit them, just as King David’s lament over a friend’s betrayal in Psalm 41 could be read as prophesying Judas betraying Jesus. Often we can see that the historicity of events matters less to the gospel authors than the moral lesson they want to convey—in the case of Judas’s suicide, for example, that evil brings ruin.[lxxxi]
Considerably, the subtle hint which lies just beneath the surface of the text and reveals the startling fact that Judas Iscariot may be nothing more than fictionalization—a devised plot point to fathom a believable antagonist to move along the moral of the parable. In fact the best evidence which suggests that Judas the betrayer is a complete imaginary tale is the Bible itself!
In Paul’s account of the resurrection, I Corinthians 15:3-8 he claims that after Jesus resurrected on the third day the reborn Christ appeared to Peter and then to the full twelve. Twelve? But wasn’t Judas the betrayer already dead; long gone, deceased, kaput, six feet under, pushing up daisies, busy meeting his maker? How in the world could there still be twelve? Some Christian critics have suggested that Paul is referring to the Twelve as a nickname, or an informal title, symbolic of the twelve tribes of Israel. If so, why do the New Testament authors continually attempt to harmonize their lists to prove the validity of the twelve by citing specific members (for example 1 Cor. 9:5, 15:5-7; 3 John 3, 5, 10; Gal. 1:119, etc.),[lxxxii] thus handing down leadership roles to twelve positions if in fact there were not exactly twelve apostles?
Knowing that Paul’s writings predate the Synoptic Gospels, and according to most Biblical scholars is more reliable than Acts (which inconveniently misquotes Paul on numerous occasions getting basic information about his life wrong), this begs the question: if Judas had really died before the resurrection on Easter Sunday why does Paul’s post-resurrection tale have no account for it? Did some mysterious new Apostle take Judas’ place? If in fact someone new had come onto the scene just three days later during these unusually dark times, wouldn’t the Gospel writers have found it an important enough of an event to write about? Yet this information is missing, which suggests that it is more likely that the first record of Jesus’ appearance after his death speaks about the entire twelve Apostles because Judas never actually died in the first place, perhaps because such a character was unreal, that is to say nonexistent.
Of course if Judas did exist, and in reality met his untimely end, there are also huge theological ramifications not to go unnoticed. Great philosophical minds have tackled this debate before, including the likes of Thomas Aquinas in his Summa Theologica, Bertrand Russell in his The Problem of Natural Evil, and also by Jorge Luis Borges in a short story entitled “Three Versions of Judas” just to name a few. They all reference the various problematic theological riddles and discrepancies having to do with the cause and effect of Judas’ actions, be them willful or not, and his eternal punishment. It would seem that Judas’ destiny directly interferes with Christ’s purpose, in more ways than one, and ever since Christians have realized this they have been desperately trying to repair the problems while keeping the moral as well as the Messianic message intact. Over time this modification and reformulation of the Judas narrative has conglomerated to create a confusing, conflicting, impossible to reconcile, discombobulated story of mythic proportions.
This ability for one man to throw off the entire theological premise of the atonement and everything involved therein, we might deem as the Judas Enigma.[lxxxiii] If you’re devoutly religious then it’s easy to dismiss this highly problematic ordeal and simply claim it is enough the traitor died and, evasively, are free to continue believing in whatever you want on the subject. But if you depend upon solid logic and reason it is quite obviously a quandary, and one that can’t help but cause you to question the rumored “historically reliable” or “infallible” nature of the Christian Bible. Perhaps, we may find it does more by unveiling the very manmade nature of the text, its borrowing of myth, as well as its deliberate attempt to transform history by rewriting it to fit with Christian aspirations, thus turning Jesus into the savior and making Judas into the traitorous villain.
Let’s not miss the implication of the Judas Enigma, as controversial as it is. If Judas is indeed a fictional character, then it is likely all the events leading up to the Resurrection are either completely untrue or completely unfounded, and that is a big problem for Christians. If we can’t know that it was Jesus who died for our sins, if it was someone else, or if the story is entirely made up—then suffice to say Christianity is not. If Judas was real, as improbable as it is, and did betray the Christ then the theological implications undo Christianity. Christians must address these issues adequately if they wish to keep their faith intact and unscathed by the powers of higher criticism.
Christianity is Concocted and Fails the Burden of Proof
Knowing that the resurrection account is completely surrounded by unreliable hearsay, internal disagreement, irreconcilable discrepancies, and contradictions galore our only option is to dismiss the claim of the resurrection—at least until convincing evidence is forthcoming—or evidence which at least coincides with the real historical report, is inherently consistent, and is without signs of tampering that opportunely, yet suspiciously, help along the Christian agenda. If the resurrection account cannot be verified it ought to be disregarded as fact on the basis that it doesn’t meet any of the qualifications of being historically or scientifically accurate, or relatively unbiased.[i]
Of course, we cannot rule out the resurrection completely by protesting too much. We cannot say, for example, that we know it did not happen, because although highly improbable there is a slight possibility that something unexplainable did occur long ago in first century Palestine. We can only say that we know it was something that could not have happened according to the physical laws of the universe. In the historical context we can rest assured that the resurrection did not likely take place, since history has not verified any accounts of highly impossible events actually taking place, and that to say it did is to make an erroneous and completely unfounded, not to forget to mention unscientific, statement.
Ardent believers might remind us that the resurrection was a divine miracle and so outside of the detectable limits of critical history. However I have to disagree. History, although it contains many unknowns, these unknowns are usually not improbable let alone impossible. For example, we know that giant reptiles called dinosaurs once littered the earth because archeologists have discovered and assembled their bones. History can say, for example, that dinosaurs lived. This is an uncontested historical fact. What remains a historical unknown is why dinosaurs went extinct. We can offer theories based on evidence for why we think they went extinct, some proffer a large and detrimental meteor impact, based on evidence of a large impact crater dated to roughly the same era when dinosaurs vanished off of the face of the earth, while others offer different theories. But what we can be certain of is that extraterrestrial aliens did not likely come down in a big space-ark and snatch most of the dinosaurs away and whisk them off to another happier world in a post-apocalyptic-dinosaur-rapture. This would be a highly unlikely scenario, one which is both erroneous, unbelievable, and doesn’t fit the historical wealth of information. Religious theories are much like this. Consequently, history cannot say what happened to the dinosaurs with any great certainty, but we can be confident that aliens didn’t steal them from us.
Similarly, history cannot comment on the nature of implausible events of the distant past without the appropriate evidence. Without the appropriate evidence all history can say is whether or not, according to what is currently known, fits the pattern of what history commonly says about such real world events. We must ask ourselves does history retain a steadfast and consistent account of things as they happen? If so, then we have no reason to assume another less likely event was what happened contrary to what is commonly depicted by the reliable and internal consistency of the historical record.
The kind of events religion likes to talk about, like Christ’s resurrection, totally lack the appropriate evidence to be verified or confirmed mainly because the nature of any miraculous event is so obscure that it cannot be crosschecked with what history traditionally says, and so takes us right back to the beginning of untestability and the problems of veracity arise all over again (this loop will keep occurring until genuinely reliable evidence is forthcoming). Thus to assert that Jesus’ resurrection is a fact is to make a dishonest claim which does not coincide with our historical report. In science, when making scientific claims, there is no room for intellectual dishonesty, especially since every scientist worth his or her salt knows that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. And claims asserted without the proper evidence can just as easily be dismissed without evidence. They are mendacious, specious, or else impetuous and so do not count.
The bottom line is this: the Holy Bible, from the first page to the very last, has been constructed from the ground up by the hands of men who have edited and amended its pages quite heavily over the ages, and consequently, there is not a shred of evidence that a divine entity of any kind was ever involved in the process. The choices of what passages have survived and what has evidently made it into the canon have all been, simply put, manmade decisions and alterations. These points of contention along with all the religious imperfections help maintain the atheist view that all religion is undeniably manmade and therefore suffers from the bad human touch.
Redaction, then, and all the scriptural and textual changes that source criticism, form criticism, Higher Criticism, and textual analysis have revealed to me show that the Biblical stories are crafted tales and romanticized legends, are not authentic accounts of real life, and often (deliberately) misrepresent history. Furthermore, much of the Bible is comprised of pseudographa—i.e. forgeries, with a miscellany of anonymous and wholly untrustworthy authors, while the rest are homonymous (copy-cat ghost writers), cite incredible events for which they are unfounded, make figurative claims about the human experience, rarely ever agree (but rather disagree and negate each other more often than not), and cannot be considered at all a reliable source for any of the events that they purport to catalog. Therefore, it is of my opinion, that the Gospels and most of the New Testament is totally unbelievable—rather there are too many reasons to be skeptical as it is impossible for any objective person to take anything in the Bible at face value—and for this reason it should never be taken literally. As a result, I cannot avow a belief in any such devotional stories which are revealed fully to be patent myth or legend.
Redaction along with all the editorship and manipulation of scripture manifestly reveal that Christianity is not only unbelievable, but also nigh on fictitious—meaning: the tenets of Christianity are not based on actual historical events so much as they are stories of antiquity which were infused with history to make it all the more passable, or historical events which became legendized to such a degree they lost their connect with dependable history, and as a result, become unreliable. Additionally, when their alterations seek to support the devotional causes of the early Christians, this rather lucky convenience, causes further doubt in the reliability of the texts; not because it appears so contrived as much as, I think you’ll find, it is a sign of further orchestration. Considering this plethora of insights, I believe skepticism is the only true way to approach the Gospel and New Testament stories, and of religious texts as a whole, objectively. Thus Higher Criticism is sine qua non if we are to reach any genuine understanding of the Bible and finally let the unadulterated truth be revealed.