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Life Arts    H3'ed 5/4/09

How We Know That Christianity Is Not True

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Originally posted:

Modern textual criticism has shown that no part of the New Testament was written by anyone who actually knew a pre-crucifixion Jesus1—if Jesus ever existed as a human being at all. We know this because of things like basic errors in geography and local customs that would be impossible for anyone that actually traveled where Jesus did to make. We also know that after a period of oral tradition there were many gospels and they were circulated without names. The names the accepted gospels were eventually given were only second century guesses—and of course we can show now that they guessed wrong.

That being said, if we place the works of the New Testament in the order that they were written (for our purposes: the works of Paul, Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John) as opposed to the order in which they were preserved, we can actually see the process of mythologization happening. Episcopal Bishop John Shelby Spong explores this in the fifth and sixth chapters of his book A New Christianity for a New World. As time goes on we see the resurrection transform from synonymous with the crucifixion and ascension and with no specific mention of a physical resurrection (or an empty tomb) to a distinct event and a definite physical resurrection, Jesus’s conception go from normal to divine, the miracles move from nonexistent to possibly merely symbolic (Spong found that the gospels of Mark and Matthew mapped onto the Jewish liturgical calendar and seemed to have been written to correspond to different celebrations during the year) to actual claims of miracles and then to more elaborate and miraculous claims, and Jesus go from a man to a powerful prophet to a godlike being. Spong concludes that:

“…we can see clearly the progress in the developing supernatural nature of Christ as we follow the evolution of the early Christian scriptures. Paul set the stage for that progress with his movement from his first acclamation that in Christ God was 'reconciling the world to himself' (2 Cor. 5:19) to his later interpretation that God had declared Jesus to be God’s son, by the Spirit of Holiness, at the time of the resurrection (Rom. 1:1-4). Next Mark declared that God had made Jesus God’s son not at the resurrection but at the baptism (Mark1:1-11). Then Matthew and Luke moved the decisive moment when Jesus was recognized as God to the conception (Matt. 1-2; Luke 1-2). Finally the idea of the enfleshment of the preexistent word or Logos emerged as John’s way of portraying the meaning of Jesus’ life. Jesus’ humanity faded with each evolutionary step, while his divinity was heightened. His capture by the prevailing God-definition became increasingly accepted.” (Spong, 109-10)

Jesus’s personality also evolved with each retelling, as Dr. William Abruzzi explains:

“Jesus is portrayed in Mark and Matthew as a prophet primarily to the Jews, while he is presented as a prophet to Jew and Gentile alike in Luke, and as the savior of all mankind in John. (Mark and Matthew were Jews, whereas Luke and John were Gentiles.) It is in the first two gospels, for example, that Jesus refuses to cure a Syrophonecian woman's daughter because the woman is a Gentile (Mark vii:24-30; Matthew xv:21-28), and it is in Matthew (x:5-6) that he explicitly instructs his apostles not to preach among the Samaritans but to preach only among the Jews. In contrast, it is in Luke (ix:55) that Jesus restrains James and John, 'The Sons of Thunder,' from destroying a Samaritan village because its residents refuse to let Jesus preach there. We also see the parable of the 'Good Samaritan' only in Luke (x:30), as well as the story of Jesus curing 10 people in which only the Samaritan returns to thank him (Luke xvii:16-17). And, finally, in John (iv:9-10, 22-23), Jesus shares a cup of water with a Samaritan woman and tells her that she will be with him in heaven. Later, when the woman tells other Samaritans about Jesus, they invite Jesus to stay in their village, which (in direct contradiction to Mark and Matthew) he does for two days. They also immediately believe in Jesus as the messiah, so charismatic is his presence (iv:39-40), again in direct contrast to Mark and Matthew where Jesus's message is rejected by his contemporaries, Jew and Samaritan alike.”

The movie The God Who Wasn’t There has this to say about Paul, the first confirmed Christian writer:

“Paul wrote lots of letters about Christianity. In fact, he wrote eighty thousand words about the Christian religion. These documents represent almost all we have of the history of Christianity during this decades-long gap.2 And here's the interesting thing. If Jesus was a human who had recently lived, nobody told Paul. Paul never heard of Mary, Joseph, Bethlehem, Herod, John the Baptist. He never heard about any of these miracles. He never quotes anything that Jesus is supposed to have said. He never mentions Jesus having a ministry of any kind at all. He doesn't know about any entrance into Jerusalem, he never mentions Pontius Pilate or a Jewish mob or any trials at all. Paul doesn't know any of what we would call the story of Jesus, except for these last three events [crucifixion, resurrection, ascension]. And even these, Paul never places on Earth. Just like the other savior gods of the time, Paul's Christ Jesus died, rose, and ascended all in a mythical realm. Paul doesn't believe that Jesus was ever a human being. He's not even aware of the idea. And he's the link between the time-frame given for the life of Jesus and the appearance of the first Gospel account of that life.”

Scholar Richard Carrier reviews the details of these claims here:

For the better part of two thousand years, the majority of scholars have just assumed that there had to be an historical Jesus at the base of Christianity. Mythicist arguments have been largely laughed out as being absurd instead of actually being treated seriously. Recently, Luigi Cascioli and Earl Doherty have made modern attempts to articulate the mythicist position, and would seem to have paid more careful attention to the details in the evidence than the historicists ever had. I will get to Casioli shortly, but first, Doherty. Earl Doherty wrote a book called The Jesus Puzzle in which he argues that Christianity is more likely to have started without a single founder and that the Jesus character was a later mythical creation. Carrier reviewed Doherty’s book and concluded that Doherty’s theory is at least as coherent with all the data that we have as the historical Jesus theory. Do we know for sure whether or not there was an historical Jesus at Christianity’s founding? No we do not. But what is perhaps more important, and what we do know for sure, is that the Jesus persona that is presented to us through Christianity is so clothed by the philosophy and mythology of others that whether there is a man or a mannequin beneath the costume is practically irrelevant—either way it is only a prop for an imaginary character that we know did not actually exist.

The earliest records we have attesting to an experience of the resurrection are from Paul, and he describes his experience as being on par with those of the other “Christians” (technically the original “Christian” groups did not call themselves Christians and remained observant members of Judaism). Yet Paul’s experience of the resurrection is notably spiritual, and not physical, in nature. He did not sit down to supper with Jesus. He did not talk to Jesus face to face. Rather, he describes seeing a light and hearing a voice. This, by the way, is not an uncommon experience for individuals that suffer from epileptic seizures, as Paul likely did. But even if his experiences were not merely hallucinatory and he actually did make contact with spiritual forces, what are we left with? Paul, essentially, saw a ghost.3 Cross-culturally, reports of this kind of thing happen all the time—across all cultures, and across all eras. There is nothing at all unique about Jesus’s case. This type of experience might be particularly jarring for individuals coming from a Jewish background that traditionally rejected the belief in the existence of a soul independent of a physical body, but the experience itself is relatively common. Reports of physically interacting with a Jesus who had a physically resurrected body (as well as finding an empty tomb) do not come into the tradition until much later, and the later in the tradition we look, the more stories saying that the resurrection had happened physically we are offered. It seems clear that this is just more of the tall tale, “big fish” phenomena that we see occurring with everything else in the Christian story.

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Ben Dench graduated valedictorian of his class from The Richard Stockton College of New Jersey in the Spring Semester of 2007 with a B.A. in philosophy (his graduation speech, which received high praise, is available on YouTube). He is currently (more...)
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