Criterion of Embarrassment

The question is often posed by defenders of Jesus Christ’s historicity:
Why would Christ’s Apostles allow unflattering characterizations of themselves to permeate in the Gospels?

Throughout the Gospels, the Apostles are portrayed as dimwits, unable or unwilling to follow Jesus’s commands to the letter. Jesus even tells Peter to get behind him, and then refers to him as Satan! (Mk 8:33).

In my view, the answer to this question is quite disastrous to not only Jesus’s historicity, but also to the Apostles.

Let us consider some plausible reasons why the heroic Apostles would be characterized in a way as to paint them in an unflattering light:

1. Exposure of weaknesses set the stage for later epiphanies.
Most heroes must go through personal growth in order to become heroes. Personal growth implies prior imperfection
2. Exposing failings of his disciples juxtaposes Jesus and them.
Such juxtaposition creates the sort of differentiation which highlights Jesus. The Apostles were little more than supporting cast members
3. It was virtuous to have moral failings
Such virtue survives into modern Christianity. We often hear “I am born sick/a sinner/fallen”. Such failings create a bridge between the reader and Jesus via the Apostles

In my mind these solutions are the most intuitive.

However, during these past years of accumulating information about early Christianity, I have come to suspect the real solution is more insidious than what these solutions imply.

For background, I would ask the reader to consider some background facts:

  1. The Gospels were not written in Hebrew or Aramaic. They were written in Greek, a fact which implies the authors might not have been from Judea (and indeed probably were not)
  2. Mark, the least Jewish of the Synoptic Gospels, and perhaps the least knowledgeable of Judean geography and culture, was the first Gospel written.
  3. Later writers, more familiar with Jewish culture, redacted Mark to correct obvious errors.
  4. Consumers of traditions in Mark’s Gospel, namely the Basilideans, were adoptionists, believing that the Spirit moves from person to person
  5. These adoptionistic themes are found throughout Mark

Adoptionism means that the Spirit is up for grabs. There is contention over it. Different players in the communities want it, claim it, and do not want to give it up. As evidenced in Acts 8:9–24, the key players, namely Peter and John, will not even give up the Spirit for money! Paul’s eyelid maintenance technician, Ananias, died in Acts 5:1-11 for attempting to withhold money from these same Apostles, which means that money was not entirely unimportant within these groups.  The fact that Ananias had to die for withholding earnings from the church smacks of a not-so-subtle attack (by proxy) of the Apostle Paul (given the relationship Ananias played in Paul’s epiphany).

According to the Basilideans, the Spirit did not move to the proximily close Apostles after Jesus died; rather, it was to the previously unknown Simon, the heroic cross-bearer who had the unhappy task of bearing Jesus Christ’s cross while he was marched to his death to fulfill a prophesy to save humanity.

As I have proposed for quite some time now, I suspect that the anomalous demon-caster in Mark 9:38-40, who had his own version of the Spirit and had the ability to cast out demons without Jesus’s explicit authority (which was in contrast to the Apostles’ authority in Mark 3:15), was a foreshadowing of this Simon, and subsequently, the unexpected later recipient of the Spirit.

Incidentally, Mark’s redactors explicitly went out of their way to have Jesus subjugate this demon caster. Matthew 7:22-23 makes it clear what its authors thought of this demon-caster:

Many will say to Me in that day, ‘Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in Your name, cast out demons in Your name, and done many wonders in Your name?’ And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness!’

Matthew, whose adoptionistic roots are as detectable as Mark’s (although later versions included a rethinking of this theology via the virgin birth), had different ideas about who the Spirit recipient was. I will spare the reader any guessing and put forward that Matthew’s users believed Peter was the next Spirit-holder.

This forces us to consider who the earliest Gospel writers had in mind, in terms of the contention over the next generation’s Spirit wielder. If it is not obvious at this point, consider a passage from one of Paul’s letters (Gal 2:11-13)

When Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned. For before certain men came from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles. But when they arrived, he began to draw back and separate himself from the Gentiles because he was afraid of those who belonged to the circumcision group. The other Jews joined him in his hypocrisy, so that by their hypocrisy even Barnabas was led astray.

This remarkable insight into the very earliest Christian in-fighting, which frankly is never resolved by Paul (although efforts are made in Acts of the Apostles), confirms to us exactly who stood in contrast to Cephas/Peter. It was Paul!

Paul’s alter-ego, at least to some Ebionites, was Simon. Therefore, the Simon Magus encounter in Acts 8 is little more than the alternative perspective of the Antioch incident Paul describes in Galatians.

In this context, let us revisit the initial question in this post:

Why would Christ’s Apostles allow unflattering characterizations of themselves to permeate in the Gospels?

What I have implied here is that the earliest Gospel authors wrote the Apostles in a negative light because they were hostile to the Apostles and they believed that Paul was the true revealer of Christian Gnosis. The personal shortcomings of the Apostles were designed to demonstrate their inferiority to Paul. To the earliest authors, Paul was the rightful owner of the Spirit. He was the Paraclete.

Which author fits this profile? Who loves Paul but is somewhere on the spectrum between hostile and ambivalent towards the Jerusalem Apostles?

In my mind, the answer could not be more obvious: it was the Marcionites!

apostle_john_and_marcion_of_sinope2c_from_jpm_library_ms_7482c_11th_c

The Marcionite canon included 10 of Paul’s letters, along with a scaled down Synoptic Gospel. We can also plausibly put the Marcionites’ activity at the time when these Gospels were authored.

The next question in this line is: why do later Gospels repeat Mark’s characterization of the Apostles? In my mind, this is explained by the fact that the proto-Mark was already very popular – too popular to withstand too drastic of a reworking without Orthodoxical authority behind it. The cat was out of the bag, and frankly, such a drastic reworking was unnecessary and untenable.

Reworking of the Apostles would instead be done in various Acts literature by communities focused on emphasizing historicity and writing the ancient equivalent of fan fiction.

The implication here is that much of the intellectual property developed by the earliest Christian practitioners was hijacked and repurposed by a later Orthodoxy.

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Author: Tim...Stepping Out

Tim Stepping Out

18 thoughts on “Criterion of Embarrassment”

  1. Yes! The more one delves the more Marcion inexorably edges from the wings to centre stage.

    The line from Life of Brian ,”He’s making it up as he goes along” will one day be referred to as ,”Never a truer word said in jest.”

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  2. Do you suppose the ‘Paul versus Peter’ theme exists in other non-canonical gospels? In particular, the Gospel of Peter I would assume would elevate Peter, but would possibly pre-date these squabbles?

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    1. Some versions of The Toldoth Yeshu say that Paul and Peter were the same person. There were also Ebionite texts which clearly link Paul and Simon Magus, such as the pseudo Clementines and the acts of Peter. There’s also the story of Peregrinus Proteus who sounds suspiciously like Paul…Peregrinus got booted from a christian community over his views on meat… sounds a lot like galatians 2.

      In my mind, the real contention, and reason for the Mark-Matthew divergence was over who was the new supreme leader. The Cerinthus and Ebionite communities liked Peter, and the Carpocratians and Marcionites liked Paul… that’s at least discernable from Irenaeus. It also fits into plausible models of the gospel evolution. In particular, Matthew redacted Mark, and Luke synthesized Mark and Matthew.

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      1. But I feel that Mark was only the first world wide hit, and that several Alexandrian gospels pre-dated it.
        Mark would possible have got much material from the Gospel of Thomas, and this gospel also takes snippets from earlier stories as well (for example I assume there was a story about Salome that we have a snippet of).
        The Coptics elevate their heroes, Thomas and Mary, so would you see this as another separate squabble, or perhaps the same divisions with different characters?
        I note that we have gnostic texts revolving around James and Paul with similar themes. It is hard to imagine James as a gnostic figure, yet that is how some saw him. This is consistent with my suspicion that “James” the Ebionite is a myth along with the 1st century Jerusalem church.
        I am still unconvinced there was a unique sect that called themselves ‘Ebionites’. Similarily, ‘Nazarene’ was possibly a name the Jews used to described Samaritans. Nevertheless, the Gospel of Matthew takes up the ‘Ebionite’ cause with the beatitudes.
        If there was a ‘Gospel of the Ebionites’ then I suspect it is was not because there was a group called Ebionites, but because the Gospel was written in tribute to the ‘Ebionites’ who were left behind when the Israelites went into captivity (2 Kings 24:12 & Jeremiah 39:10). In support of my theory, I did read somewhere that Samaritans identified themselves as the descendants of those who remained (but I could not find where this came from).
        I think we assume Ebionite theology is linked to the anti-Paul camp and strict observance of Mosaic law because the two ideas are found in Matthew. However, if Ebionites are more legend than sect, then they could be invoked by any group. (Paul also says he wished to support the Poor) It was later Christian writers who believed they were a distinct group, possibly because it was required to rewrite history so as the Church began in Jerusalem and that Matthew needed to be the original Gospel.

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  3. Excellent post Tim. I think of all the four gospels, John is the most cognizant of Judea especially John 5:2-9 where John described a pool with five porticoes. Unfortunately, not even Josephus is aware of that pool in Jerusalem. If I were to arrange the gospels according to their cognizance of Judea, it’ll probably something like:

    John > Luke≥Matthew>Mark

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  4. I think you miss a major point. By the time the Gospels were written, all or most of the disciples (if, indeed, they are real people) would have died. Since none of them left actual writings, it is unlikely that they would have a following of their own. Then people who had christological or theological axes to grind would disparage them at will. The Marcionites, as you explain them, were fans of Paul and Paul was no fan of anyone who might stake a greater claim to “knowing Jesus” to knowing Jesus than he. So, it is no mistake that Peter almost always looks the fool or takes the wrong path as Peter had a following, often apparently (if Galatians is to be trusted) on a side opposite from that of Paul.

    So, any time I see a potential “expert” on Jesus slammed in scripture, I immediately think some writer is counting coup and there is a reason other than reality.

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    1. I think you miss a major point. By the time the Gospels were written, all or most of the disciples (if, indeed, they are real people) would have died. Since none of them left actual writings, it is unlikely that they would have a following of their own.

      “…I became convinced that the NT gospels were not written by eyewitnesses or by people who knew eyewitnesses…Some people think that there is an early Church Father named Papias who attests to the witness of Mark and Matthew, but in fact there are solid reasons for thinking that Papias who lived around year 120 to 140 is not referring to our Mark and Matthew. The first time anybody refers to Matthew, Mark, Luke and John by name is Irenaeus in the year 180…but Jesus is never mentioned in any Greek or Roman non-Christian source until 80 years after his death. There is no record of Jesus having lived in these sources. In the entire first Christian century, Jesus is not mentioned by a single Greek or Roman historian, religion scholar, politician, philosopher or poet…”

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    2. The assumption underlying this post was that the apostles were ciphers for different groups. I have read enough earlier posts to know this is assumed in Tim’s theory.

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  5. I agree with some of what you’ve said here, but not all. First, I think there are many starting assumptions that are unjustified as to who and why the Gospels were written.

    I do agree that the writer of Mark was pro-Paul and anti the other apostles. Indeed I provide concrete evidence for that in my book.

    In my new book, Deciphering the Gospels Proves Jesus Never Existed (https://www.amazon.com/Deciphering-Gospels-Proves-Jesus-Existed/dp/1483487830/), I propose that the writer of the Gospel of Mark was a Pauline follower, writing in reaction to the destruction of the temple in 70 CE. The story that we call Gospel of Mark was a fictional allegory. The writer himself knew that Jesus wasn’t real. The Jesus character in the story is clearly based on Paul himself and the writer uses the letters of Paul as the basis for his character. The message of the story is that James, John and Peter, along with the conservative Jewish factions, brought the war upon themselves. The story paints the early Jesus movement itself as a total failure, which led to the First Jewish-Roman War and the destruction of the temple.

    The reason all the other Gospels follow Mark is because there was no other biographical material about Jesus, because he wasn’t real. This story is what started the idea that Jesus was a real person. Every single narrative about Jesus ever written descends from the Gospel of Mark.

    Someone wrote a fictional allegory about how the Jews and the Jewish leaders of the Jesus cult brought the war upon themselves, and that story ended up becoming the basis of a new religion. Prior to that story the Jesus cult was just a tiny irrelevant Jewish mystery religion, worshiping an immaterial heavenly messiah named the Lord Jesus. Once “Mark” came out, right after the war, it became hugely popular and that’s actually what started Christianity as we know it. The prior cult never gained any traction on its own, it was the Gospel stories that launched the religion.

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    1. I have looked at a few different theories, and I see that there are many out there that make a lot of sense of some of the evidence, but few that can explain all the evidence.
      The Occam’s razor approach can be a stumbling block in trying to understand Christian origins. My conclusion is that the origins of Christianity were very complex and the evidence existing too scarce to put it all together. Essentially the evidence is an under-sample of the complex system.

      Was the gospel of Mark really a revolutionary Gospel? Where does it then fit with the Gospel of Peter, Thomas etc ?
      The only thing we can assume is that it had more traction than any before it.

      I suspect there was much evolution of the ‘Christ’ character before Mark was written, however it is not just a matter of time but distance as well. In several parts of the world, ‘Jesus’, ‘Christ’, ‘Yeshu’, ‘Simon Magus’, ‘Zealot-legends’ and other ‘God-man’ stories were evolving. These stories were continually diverging and hybridizing. I have looked at a few different theories, and I see that there are many out there that make a lot of sense of some of the evidence, but few that can explain all the evidence.
      The Occam’s razor approach can be a stumbling block in trying to understand Christian origins.

      Was the gospel of Mark really a revolutionary Gospel? Where does it then fit with the Gospel of Peter, Thomas etc ?
      The only thing we can assume is that it had more traction than any before it. It is also a problem to assume that the majority of it was all written at once. (apart from the additional endings, there could have been numerous re-works even before these)

      I suspect there was much evolution of the ‘Christ’ and ‘Jesus’ character before Mark was written, however it is not just a matter of time but distance as well. In several parts of the world, ‘Jesus’, ‘Christ’, ‘Yeshu’, ‘Simon Magus’, ‘Zealot-legends’ and other ‘God-man’ stories were evolving. These stories were continually diverging and hybridizing. The second century saw the attempts to consolidate the myths and legends.
      Evert time I feel I have isolated one aspect of these myths, I find another angle to contradict the theory.

      My point is, don’t get too attached to your theory!

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  6. In my view, the answer to this question is quite disastrous to not only Jesus’s historicity, but also to the Apostles.

    From a mythicist, or historicist, point of view, there is reason to think the council of 12 didn’t exist before Jesus was resurrected, since Paul seems to think having an “experience” of the risen Jesus was a necessary, but not sufficient, condition of being an apostle (“Have I not seen …,” 1 Corinthians 9:1).

    In Mark’s gospel, the dullardness of the apostles fits in with the idea that the first will be last and the last will be first in the coming Kingdom, which fits in with Jesus too as a backwater preacher from nowhere Nazareth whose family thinks he’s crazy and who can’t perform miracles in his hometown.

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  7. I hope someone does research if these scribes in Qumran were using psychoactive substances like Amanita muscaria, THC from Cannabis. I know you’ve read John Allegro’s The Sacred Mushroom and the Cross so which makes me wonder if these ascetic Jews and competing sects like the Christian Gnostics are into such substances to feel the divine pleroma battling the archons.

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