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Examining Jesus' Passion through the Crucible of Doubt

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No writer has had a greater impact on my life than Fyodor Dostoevsky -- arguably the greatest of the world's novelists and one of its most imposing defenders of Christianity. It was Dostoevsky who claimed, in a letter to N. D. Fonvizina in 1854, "If someone proved to me that Christ is outside the truth, and that in reality, the truth were outside Christ, then I would prefer to remain with Christ rather than the truth."

 

In that same letter, however, he also asserted "I am a child of this century, a child of doubt and disbelief, I have always been and shall ever be (that I know), until they close the lid of my coffin." To his credit, Dostoevsky never ceased testing his faith.

 

Predictably, Dostoevsky bristled when critics disparaged the religious obscurantism found in his last and, perhaps, greatest novel The Brothers Karamazov (and its classic within a classic, "The Grand Inquisitor"): "The scoundrels provoke me with an ignorant and retrograde faith in God. These asses could not even dream of such a powerful negation of God as is depicted in the Inquisitor and the preceding chapter, to which the entire novel serves as an answer. It is not as a fool or a fanatic that I believe in God." [Dostoevsky: The Mantle of the Prophet, 1871-1881, by Joseph Frank, p. 713]

 

Elsewhere, Dostoevsky wrote: "Even in Europe, such a force of atheistic expression does not exist, nor did it ever. Therefore, it is not like a child that I believe in Christ and profess my faith in Him. My hosanna has come forth from the crucible of doubt." [Ibid]

 

Under Dostoevsky's influence, I have subjected my previously lukewarm Christian faith to the crucible of doubt. Thus, although I now take Christianity seriously, I refuse to believe like a fool, fanatic or child.

 

Like Judaism and Islam, Christianity is a religion of the Book. Serious Christians know that the followers of Jesus "remarkably quickly"seemed to question the idea that history was about to end." Consequently, "they collected and preserved stories about the founder in a newly invented form of text, the codex (the modern book.)" [Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years, by Diarmaid MacCullough, p. 9]

 

As will clearly be demonstrated below, only fools, fanatics or children believe that the Bible is the literal word of God. Serious Christians know that "there is not a sentence concerning Jesus in the entire New Testament composed by anyone who ever had met the unwilling King of the Jews, unless (and it is unlikely) the General Epistle of James truly is by James his brother, rather than by one of James's followers." [Jesus and Yahweh, Harold Bloom, p. 19]

 

As New Testament scholar Burton Mack has written: "Scholars locate various writings of the New Testament at different times and places over a period of one hundred years, from the letters of Paul in the 50s of the first century, through the writing of the gospels of Mark and Matthew in the 70s and 80s, the gospels of John and Luke around the turn of the second century, and so on to acts, letters, and other writings during the first half of the second century, some as late as 140 to 150 CE." [Who Wrote the New Testament? p. 5]

 

The Gospels "were written thirty-five to sixty-five years after Jesus' death by authors who did not know him, authors living in different countries who were writing in different times to different communities with different problems and concerns. The authors all wrote in Greek and they all used sources for the stories they narrate." [The New Testament, Bart D. Ehrman, p. 61]

 

Not one of the names assigned to the Gospels -- Matthew, Mark, Luke and John -- is necessarily accurate, because the earliest versions of these books were anonymously written. Those names were assigned subsequently by leaders within the Church.

 

(Similarly, Church leaders -- such as Bishop Athanasius of Alexandria in 367 -- decided which books merited inclusion in the New Testament. The Gospel of Thomas wasn't included, yet, according to Harold Bloom, "the Gnostic sayings of Jesus in the Gospel of Thomas ring more authentically to me than the entire range of utterances attributed to him in the Synoptic Gospels and the very late Gospel of John.") [Bloom, pp.18-19]

 

Mark is generally considered to be the earliest of the Gospels. That's significant because, as Bart Ehrman notes, "in general, historical sources closest to an event have a greater likelihood of being accurate than those of a further remove" [The New Testament, p. 216]

 

Nevertheless, "we do not have the originals of any of the books of the New Testament, or the first copies, or the copies of the first copies. What we have are copies made much later -- in most cases hundreds of years later." [Ibid, p. 12]

 

"Among the over 5,000 Greek copies of the New Testament that we have, no two of them are exactly alike." [Ibid] Two of the earliest copies of the New Testament to survive -- the codex Sinaiticus and codex Vaticanus -- date from the fourth century. Yet, neither of these earliest Bibles contains the last twelve verses of Mark's Gospel.

 

Thus, according to the Gospel of Mark in these two Bibles, Mary Magdalene, Mary (mother of James) and Salome arrive at Jesus's tomb only to find the stone rolled away, the tomb empty and a young man clothed in a long white garment, who tells them that Jesus of Nazareth "is risen" and instructs them to go and tell the disciples and Peter. But, inexplicably, Mark's Gospel ends at 16:8: "And they went out quickly, and fled from the sepulcher; for they trembled and were amazed: neither said they any thing to any man; for they were afraid."

 

This is troubling for two reasons. First, Mark is the oldest and presumably the most accurate of the Gospels. Second, as John Dominic Crossan has observed: "If they told nobody, how did Mark, unless "he' was one of them, know about it?" [The Birth of Christianity, p. 557]

 

Now compare Mark 16:8 with Matthew 28:8: "and they departed quickly from the sepulcher with fear and great joy; and did run to bring his disciples word." Moreover, Mark's "young man" (16:5) becomes an "angel" in Matthew 28:2, 5. Who are we to believe?

 

John Dominic Crossan -- "generally acknowledged to be the premier historical Jesus scholar in the world" -- believes neither Mark nor Matthew. "First, Mark created both the women's discovery of the empty tomb and the burial story needed in preparation for it. Second, Matthew created the story of the apparition of Jesus to the women to change Mark's negative ending into a more positive one. John copied that vision from Matthew." [Ibid, p. 552]

 

The question of who to believe also arises when one examines the different ways Mark and Luke describe Jesus' state of mind during his crucifixion. In Mark 15: 34, Jesus cries, "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?" However, in Luke 23:46, Jesus cries with a loud voice, "Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit."

 

Thus, as Bart Ehrman has observed: "These differences are significant and should not be downplayed, as if Mark and Luke were portraying Jesus in precisely the same way. When modern readers act as if they were, for example, by thinking that Jesus said all of these things on the cross, some of them recorded by Mark and others by Luke, they take neither account seriously, but rather create their own account, in which Jesus is presented as all things at one and the same time." [ The New Testament, p. 126]

 

Another problem with the Passion narratives concerns the exact time of Jesus' crucifixion. Bart Ehrman describes the contradiction as follows: "In Mark, Jesus eats the Passover meal (Thursday night) and is crucified the following morning. In John, Jesus does not eat the Passover meal but is crucified on the day before the Passover meal was to be eaten. Moreover, in Mark, Jesus is nailed to the cross at nine in the morning; in John, he is not condemned until noon, and then taken out and crucified." [Jesus, Interrupted, p. 27]

 

Ehrman states the obvious when he concludes, "It is impossible that both Mark's and John's accounts are historically accurate, since they contradict each other on the question of when Jesus died." [Ibid. p. 29]

 

As a final example of the problems associated with Jesus' Passion, consider John 18:28 -- 19:16. "If Jesus and Pilate were alone at the trial"and Jesus was immediately executed, who told the Fourth Evangelist what Jesus actually said?" [The New Testament, p. 59]

 

Thus, it is no exaggeration to say that each of the Gospels suffers from credibility problems.

 

Nevertheless, beyond demolishing any claim that the Bible is inerrant and literally true, the credibility problems examined above still do little to disprove the claims that Jesus was crucified and rose from the dead. And that remains the case even after one acknowledges that "a book of good news is not the same as straightforward reported news." [MacCullough, p. 78] and that "nowhere in the New Testament is there a description of the Resurrection," [Ibid, p. 94], just a description of its effects.

 

Moreover, the New Testament is "true" in the sense that it has had meaning and significance for countless Christians over the ages. As the Danish Christian philosopher, Soren Kierkegaard, put it: "An objective uncertainty held fast in an appropriation-process of the most passionate inwardness is the truth, the highest truth attainable for an existing individual." [Concluding Unscientific Poscript, 1846]

 

Nevertheless, to those of us possessed by reason, the failure to disprove the biblical claims about Jesus' crucifixion and resurrection hardly proves they occurred. After all, there's the matter of the "Sayings Gospel Q,"

 

"Q is from the German word Quelle, meaning "source.' The text got that name when scholars discovered that both Matthew and Luke had used a collection of the sayings of Jesus as one of the "sources' for their gospels" [Mack, p. 47]

 

According to Burton Mack, Q "documents the history of a single group of Jesus people for a period of about fifty years from the time of Jesus in the 20s until after the Roman-Jewish war in the 70s"They did not need to imagine Jesus in the role of a god or tell stories about his resurrection from the dead in order to honor him as a teacher. [Ibid]

 

Much of the material that Matthew uses for his Sermon on the Mount was taken from Q. As Bart Ehrman points out, "the sermon is thus largely about life in the kingdom of heaven, which" was the main emphasis of Jesus' teaching." [The New Testament, p. 101]

 

But, "this kingdom of heaven does not refer to the place people go to when they die. Rather it refers to God's presence on earth, a kingdom that he will bring at the end of this age by overpowering the forces of evil." [Ibid]

 

Thus, the evidence in Q raises questions about what prompted Paul and the authors of the Gospels to transform Jesus from a teacher, sage and prophet -- concerned about the kingdom of heaven on earth -- into the Christ and our Savior.

 

Those who suspect that "mass delusion" or "some colossal act of wishful thinking" was driving that transformation, have the equally fantastic cult of the Virgin Mary as their exhibit number one.

 

When Greek-speaking Jews decided to translate the Hebrew Scriptures into Greek, the result was a second century BCE version known as the Septuagint. Unfortunately, in the course of translating the words of the prophet Isaiah into Greek, the translator mistakenly translated the Hebrew word "alma," which means "young woman" into the Greek word "parthenos," which means virgin.

 

Thus, whereas Isaiah's original Hebrew talks about a young woman conceiving and bearing a son, the Septuagint's Isaiah writes: "Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and his name shall be called Emmanuel." [MacCullough, p. 81]

 

As Professor MacCullough observes, "the tangle of preoccupations with Mary's virginity centers on Matthew's quotation from the Greek version of the words of the prophet Isaiah"This Christian use of the Septuagint was either cause or result of changing perspectives on Jesus, which emerged out of what is likely to have been a cacophony of opinions and assertions among his first followers." [Ibid]

 

Although the cult of Virgin Mary grew quickly in the Syrian Church, it gained widespread traction and increased popularity as the Church attempted to stamp out the heresy of Arianism. To that end, the Council of Nicaea (in 325) decreed that "the Son was "of one substance' (homoousios) with the Father," even though "homoousios" is not mentioned once in the New Testament. To buttress the council's decree, Mary was now acclaimed to be "Theotokos," or Bearer of God, rather than "Anthropotokos," Bearer of a Human.

 

As professor MacCullough concludes: "Devotion to Mary was now becoming prominent throughout the Roman Empire: for the Nicene settlement of doctrine encouraged it, as a way of safeguarding Christ's divinity against Arianism." [p. 225]

 

Thus, an entire cult emerged from a mistranslation put to good use by the Church. It's a lesson to keep in mind when subjecting Jesus' Passion to the crucible of doubt.


 

Walter C. Uhler is an independent scholar and freelance writer whose work has been published in numerous publications, including The Nation, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, the Journal of Military History, the Moscow Times and the San (more...)
 
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I have to agree with the author that the gospel ac... by Peter Duveen on Thursday, Apr 21, 2011 at 11:14:29 AM
I appreciate your observations and have a few obse... by Walter Uhler on Thursday, Apr 21, 2011 at 6:25:41 PM
When I attended seminary, I was blessed to have a ... by Peter Duveen on Thursday, Apr 21, 2011 at 7:16:09 PM
I wonder about your finding "a large body of schol... by E. J. N. on Friday, Apr 22, 2011 at 1:48:55 PM
J. Nunn, there are actually many theories, many fa... by Peter Duveen on Friday, Apr 22, 2011 at 8:23:39 PM
Your article brings to mind another article on ano... by E. J. N. on Thursday, Apr 21, 2011 at 5:15:50 PM