I grew up in a very conservative Christian household (partially, my parents were divorced) in which the Bible was talked about on a near daily basis. After school, there was a radio program that discussed how the End Times were upon us and how modern society was causing the downfall of a Good Christian Nation [TM]. We would discuss religion, well, religiously. But we always did it with a lot of assumptions. Sure, I was allowed, even encouraged to question my faith and the Bible, but I only did so under a few instances, preferring instead to see my opinions as facts, the Bible as certified truth. As I entered college, however, my opinions began to change. I took a freshman seminar about the Old Testament and really began to question the foundation my faith was built on. I eventually came to the conclusion, after a report on the Enuma Elish (an older creation story the Bible seemed to copy) that the Bible wasn’t literal, but figurative, and that was okay. That initial breakthrough led to several others, and here I stand today before you, a committed agnostic, possibly an atheist. There was a lot of self-reflection, a lot of research, asking questions, talking to mentors, professors, scholars, pastors, Christians, Atheists, etc in the process that I won’t go into, but suffice to say I didn’t forsake my religion on a whim. It’s taken a lot to admit to myself that I don’t believe in the Bible, and it still is, hence the hesitation with calling myself an atheist.
Even after all of this, I still whole heartedly accepted that there was a man named Jesus who traveled around his small part of the world and taught these things. Certainly I questioned his deity, but not his existence. That was until I heard David Fitzgerald on the podcast Dogma Debate. In the second part of the podcast, David gets into the nitty gritty of evidence (or lack thereof) of evidence supporting his stance that Jesus wasn’t an actual person. I’m a sucker for people who use primary sources to uphold their views, and David expertly spouted off information that he chronicles in his book about this very topic, and many others. So of course I had to read the book. And here are my notes. These, as always, are works in progress. They will be numbered for clarity should you wish to respond. Here we go. =)
1. The purpose of this all-too-brief examination is to shed light on ten of these beloved Christian myths, ten beautiful lies about Jesus:
- The idea that Jesus was a my is ridiculous!
- Jesus was wildly famous – but there was no reason for contemporary historians to notice him…
- Ancient historian Josephus wrote about Jesus
- Eyewitnesses wrote the Gospels
- The Gospels give a consistent picture of Jesus
- History confirms the Gospels
- Archeology confirms the Gospels
- Paul and the Epistles corroborate the Gospels
- Christianity began with Jesus and his apostles
- Christianity was a totally new and different miraculous overnight success that changed the world!
These are the ten myths that Fitzgerald intends to delve into throughout his book, for reference.
2. First, Jesus is portrayed dramatically differently in each [crucifixion telling]: anguished and miserable in Mark, surrounded by special effects in Matthew, serene in Luke, large and in charge in John.
This is one of the many times that Fitzgerald points to a plethora of conflicts between the texts that cannot be rectified with one another. This also includes the different dates of crucifixion, by whom Jesus was tried and sentenced, etc. Obviously, not all can be correct.
3. As you can see, none of these supposed witnesses were in any position to give a contemporary eyewitness account of the time in which Jesus supposedly lived, because none of them were even born yet during the period in question…. Few are even talking about Christ in any context. For the most part, they are discussing Christians, not Christ at all.
Fitzgerald then goes on to detail several of the people who were alive during or around the time that Jesus would have been, and when Christianity was beginning to spread. He shows what these people were interested in, what their work entailed, how they completely left out any mention of Jesus, his actions, or his teachings, despite a reasonable assumption that had he been a real person performing real miracles, they would have actively and enthusiastically covered.
4. This was not a level playing field where some texts just happened to be lost. It is something much more shocking: a pervasive silence, lasting for centuries, that occurs even in an environment where the odds were stacked completely in favor of the Christian scribes and copyists.
Fitzgerald then lists a handful of notable cases where famous scholars and historians’ writings are plagued by gaps. Taken individually, it’s easy to blame the passage of time as the culprate of these losses. However, when we take the whole of the evidence that Christian scribes purposefully removed sections for one reason or another, it becomes more moving. Why do all of these authors’ writings, which were under the care and protection of Christians, have gaps in areas that one would think any mention of Jesus would be. For example, Tacitus’ writings are missing a large gap where one would expect history of the emperor Tiberius to be. This gap is two years from mid-29 CE to mid-31 CE, roughly the time scholars place the crucifixion. If this were the only case, one could dismiss it. But it’s not, as Fitzgerald points out, and it’s not arbitrary when taken as a lump sum with other missing or gapped writings.
5. The portrayals of Jesus vary so widely that biblical historians have been able to reconstruct dozens of “historical” Jesuses in their own image, all equally plausible – and perfectly contradictory.
This quote follows a long chapter discussing the various Jesuses that each of the Gospels portrays. He highlights the differences in dating, attitudes, accounts of events, reasons for those events, locations, and so on. He shows how the Gospels copied one another (or didn’t, in the case of John. While some of these contradictions can be down played and explained away, taken together they certainly cannot be ignored. These different Jesuses, Fitzgerald argued, seem to be told in varying ways deliberately, which begs the question of why.
6. So this is the state of the Gospels: four contradictory, convoluted and reworked writings set down decades after the supposed events by unknown author or authors falsely being passed off as eyewitnesses, and all primarily derived from a single source, which as we’ll see, appears to be entirely literary fiction.
So then, how are we to trust anything the New Testament says?
7. Ehrman reminds us that the decisions regarding manuscript texts are by no means obvious, and that competent, well-meaning, highly intelligent scholars often come to opposite conclusions when looking at the same evidence.
The texts have been copied and edited and translated for centuries. Is it not reasonable to assume that at least one instance of this has changed the meaning of the section? Are we to believe that absolutely no changes of note were made to the texts when obvious changes were made in other religious texts, as noted above? How do we decide which parts are true and which parts aren’t?
8. …there is nothing in the New Testament that was actually written by anyone who could claim to have personally known Jesus.
This is problematic for several reasons; why didn’t any of the people closest to Jesus write anything down about their experiences with him, were they not incredible years; how can we trust what is being said is true if it was written by people who were not there, who had perhaps ulterior motives, whose words have been edited over time by other people with other ulterior motives. This, in a nutshell, is the basis of the biggest issue Fitzgerald has with a historical Jesus.
9. The Didakhe, an early manual of Christian church practice and teachings, spends two chapters talkinga bout wandering preachers and warning against the many false preahers who are mere “traffikers in Christs,” or as Bart Ehrman wonderfully names them, “Christmongers.”
So if we know that numerous people were traveling around claiming to be Jesus, how do we know we have “the right one” or that some of the stories we have about him aren’t from different Christmongers? Fitzgerald then describes a war within the Church that pitted different sects against one another. As one sect would gain power over another, they would burn and destroy any tests that supported their opposition. So again, how are we to trust the teachings of the Bible to be authentic and not edited for personal gain?
10. …there appear to be strological motifs in the names of the Apostles and their stories in the Gospels… As Zindler points out, if Jesus was a sun god (and who else is born on the winter solstice and worshiped on Sunday?), he would have needed twelve zodiacal accomplices.
Could the story of Jesus be an attempt to Christianize Pagan gods?
11. After his death the Son was given “the name that is above every name.” The title “Lord” is not a name; “Jesus,” on the other hand, is. And “Lord” is not the name the hymn says God gave him -rather, it says God gave him the name of Jesus. Incredibly, one of the earliest Christian texts tells us that the Savior did not receive the name Jesus until after his death!
This quote is referring to the Kenosis Hymn, found in Paul’s letter to the Philippians. This tends to negate the idea that there was a man who was called Jesus, but rather suggests that this person gained the name after his death. If that’s true, then how do we account for all of the times Jesus was called Jesus before his death? Further, if true, this indicates how flawed any writing claiming to be from eye witnesses is if the speaker calls Jesus by his name in the context of his life.
12. It’s only when the other Mediterranean gods like Zeus begin having demigod sons with mortal women that God suddenly announces that he has a demigod son too.
This, and many other, correlations between Christianity and Paganism suggests that Christians were trying to merge the two enough to convert people, and to downplay the Pagan gods. This has been done throughout history, with Native Americans merging Catholicism with their own nature worship, to the adoption of saints within polytheistic religions. It’s a tool of power and control among some, attempts at adaption and survival for others.
As mentioned in the opening paragraphs, despite my agnosticism, I’d readily accepted that there was a historical Jesus who proclaimed to be the Son of God, who traveled throughout the Middle East, who performed what some people thought were miracles. However, this book has cast some serious doubt on that notion. It’s easy to take one instance at a time and point to excuses and explanations that explain it away – though perhaps unconvincingly. But when you take a look at the entirety of the evidence, or lack thereof, that Fitzgerald presents to support his argument against a historical Jesus, it’s hard to waive everything away as coincidence or to even explain each issue satisfactorily.
So, then, what are we left with? We are left with a vague outline of a person (or perhaps several persons) who is said to have done these incredible things, of which we basically have no independent verification, and of which the writers of the Bible can’t seem to agree upon. When we put the writings into historical context, analyze the language used, compare and contrast to other histories, religions, cultures, etc, the foundation of the historical Jesus becomes difficult to keep sturdy. And then that raises other questions; if the Bible got Jesus wrong, what else did it get wrong? Why would it lie, on purpose or by omission? Why would Christian scholars want to edit the books of the Bible, or redact parts of secular writings about Jesus or Christianity? If we can’t rely on the Bible to get the main character right, can we rely on it for anything else?
These are serious questions and without serious and complete answers, one (read, I) has a hard time justifying a belief in this religion. And thus is my dilemma. How am I supposed to give my life to something with so many holes in it? Wouldn’t a merciful god appreciate honest skepticism and inquiry as opposed to blind or dishonest belief?