Jesus Didn’t Exist (Part 1)

The great mathematician Pythagoras discovered around 600 BCE that the earth was spherical.  A few hundred years later, Aristotle determined the earth and sun were in orbit, and that the sun revolved around the earth.  Aristotle got the relationship wrong, but it wasn’t a half-bad guess for a guy who didn’t have a telescope nor any real comprehension about how gravity worked.

Despite a great Greek knowledge enlightenment that lasted until around 200 BCE (but was by no means over), no one had a working model of the relationship between observed phenomena and their underlying causes, particularly when it came to matters of disease, weather, and the spectrum of biological processes.

Even in modern society, it wasn’t until after Watson and Crick’s discovery 62 years ago that scientists realized the underlying reason for the phenotypes Gregor Mendel stumbled upon in the mid-1800s, is because of nucleic acids inside the cell’s nucleus, and the orchestra of chemical reactions going on inside each of our 100 trillion+ cells.

Modern people who lack a scientific understanding are the most inclined to believe things that are supernatural and mystical in nature.  More informed people tend to reject these things once they understand how the world really works.

Therefore I don’t think it’s unfair to paint our Iron Age relatives who were early adherents Christianity as profoundly ignorant – more ignorant than the most ignorant person you’ll ever meet.  Though its inventors were quite philosophically astute, they lacked the benefit of a surrounding world which understood more than they could ever imagine.

Seeing things in this way had a meaningful impact on my journey to atheism…I guess I could be described as an agnostic atheist, because I don’t know what happened that gave rise to the big bang, and I can’t recite the chemical underpinnings which gave rise to inorganic material replicating itself…I just know that modern religion fails at an astounding level to accurately explain anything that would be perceived as remotely useful; in a world where explanatory power is the lingua franca of progress, this is an unforgivable defect.

For years, I’ve been agnostic about whether I believe Jesus Christ actually existed.  Most mainstream historical scholars agree he did; however, the skeptic in me recognizes that it’s not hard to arrive at that conclusion when you presuppose it.

One of the reasons I struggle with the [did Jesus exist] question is because I struggle with the definition of the word “exist”.

Consider this statement:

Tim is a computer programmer, atheist, and occasional blog writer. 

The above statement is true, and the Tim described in the sentence exists, can be historically verified, matches the actual characteristics of the historical Tim, and we can use different evidence sources to support his existence – blog posts, FBI records, family accounts, pictures, phone book entry, etc; however, what if I change it to the following:

Tim is a computer programmer, atheist, and occasional blog writer.  He also cures sick people with magic. 

Does the above Tim exist?  I suppose he does, although there’s a lie in the sentence, in that Tim has supernatural magical healing powers.  He doesn’t, and I know this because that statement violates natural rules – it’s supernatural nonsense.  However, at the foundation of the sentence is some truth.  We can scrape away the supernatural claims, smooth the embellishments, and come away with a human being who demonstrably exists.

Let’s try this one:

Tim is an accountant, atheist, and occasional sky diver.  He also cures sick people with magic. 

I’m not an accountant or sky diver, nor (as earlier mentioned) can I heal sick people with magic.  But maybe there is another person who is an accountant and sky diver.  In that case, perhaps two people were merged together, and some supernatural characteristics got added to this fictitious merged-person.

I’ve always assumed this was the historical trajectory the Christ story took – I believed Yeshua of (perhaps) Nazareth was a real, apocalyptic preacher who claimed to be a messiah (not a unique claim in those days), and over time inherited characteristics from John the Baptist, Judas of Galilee, competing religious characters, such as Mithras, Osiris, and Dionysus; and of course, there extra embellishments tacked on to fulfill prophesies from the Old Testament, such as his virgin birth in Bethlehem and his relationship to King David.

The question I struggle with is this:  how many lies and omissions of truth does it take to make someone fictitious?  

Here’s a threshold to consider:  if there was a person of significance in history who was going around the geographic area in question, Lake Galilee, in the early 1st century talking about end of times, collecting a moderate number of followers, saying something about ethical behavior, and who remotely resembles the human being depicted in the Gospel of Mark (the earliest gospel, and the one who paints Jesus as most human and least supernatural), I presume this person was the foundation of the Jesus story.  This framework requires nos evidence for the supernatural aspects of the story – for instance, Pliny the Elder and Seneca the Younger (prominent writers in the Roman Empire during the time Jesus supposedly lived) never wrote about zombies rising from the dead, earthquakes, or darkness on the day of Jesus’ crucifixion, as described in the gospels.  To me, this fact does not violate the existence definition because I already presuppose the supernatural aspects of the gospels were embellishments.

Here’s my conclusion:  the fact that Pliny the Elder, Seneca the Younger, Justus of Tiberias, Philo of Alexandria, and Nicolaus of Damascus never wrote about a character resembling Jesus almost certainly implies there was no one with even a moderate amount of following or significance who resembled the Jesus Christ depicted in Mark in any way whatsoever.  All of these writers would have certainly written about him if he existed, and plenty of their writings still exist – this period in history is not some black box.  It is remarkably well-documented and preserved, considering how long ago it was.  The fact that none of these writers wrote anything at all about any such character means that not only do the supernatural claims fail, but the natural ones do too.

In my estimation, the closest figure, who meets the criteria of geography, the messiah archetype, and anti-Roman inclinations is Judas of Galilee.  The problem with that assumption is that Judas of Galilee would have never said “render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s”, because his claim to fame was a staunch anti-tax movement which he led.

In that sense, I find Jesus Christ not guilty of existence.

Suggested Reading:
Richard Carrier – On The Historicity Of Jesus
David Fitzgerald – Nailed
My thoughts on How Jesus Was Invented

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20 Questions From An Atheist To Christians

Christians often accuse atheists of holding their worldview because they want to sin, or because they hate God, or perhaps because they had traumatic experiences in the church.  I don’t find any of these to be the case with atheists I talk to…in fact, many of the atheists I know are quite well-behaved people with tremendous moral character.  I rejected Christianity because I couldn’t ignore some of the logical inconsistencies that came along with it.

I consider myself a skeptic, and I think that logical honesty includes re-evaluating one’s worldview from time to time, and being willing to throw away ideas that are not good.  I’m open to better ideas when I see them, and I’d be very interested in reading responses a Christian might have to some of these questions, because these questions were part of the reason I became an atheist in the first place.

  1. The gospel of Mark is widely accepted to be the first of the gospels, written 30 to 35 years after Jesus Christ died.  Matthew and Luke were written 10-15 years later.  John was written last, as much as 70 years after Jesus Christ died.  Through each gospel, there is new information being added.  For instance, Mark (and earlier writings by Paul) never mention Jesus Christ being born of a virgin, or being born in Bethlehem.  John is the first gospel to state that Jesus called himself god, pre-existing, and divine (John 8:58, John 14:9, John 17:5).

Do you think the additions to Jesus’ life in Matthew, Luke, and John were accidental omissions by Paul and Mark?

  1. During the time Paul was traveling around the Mediterranean, Jesus’ brother James lead congregations in Jerusalem until his death around 65 AD.  During the war in 70, Christians were pushed out of Jerusalem, to the countryside.   James eventually appointed Saint Simeon of Jerusalem a bishop of his church, and Simeon eventually came to lead the Ebionites, who among other things, did not believe Jesus Christ was divine, or was born of a virgin.

Why do you think people with such a direct link to Jesus’ brother have such an inconsistent worldview as mainline Christians?

  1. Biblical literalists claim the earth is around 6000 years old, based on timelines provided in the Old Testament.  The historical, fossil, radiometric, and genetic evidence seem to indicate a remarkably older earth than that, and dating the age of humans to be upwards of 200,000 years old.  Other predecessor species, such as Homo Heidelbergensis, Homo Ergaster, Homo Erectus, and Homo Habilis go back upwards of 2.5 million years.

If you agree with these scientific tenets, and that humans’ predecessors probably went without religion for millions of years, how could original sin exist?

  1. In Christianity, it’s said that God sent his son, Jesus Christ, to die for humanity’s sins.

If God had the capacity to create an infinite universe, with amazing precision contained within infinitesimally small cells, molecules, atoms, and quarks, doesn’t it seem a little strange that he would concern himself with such a primitive practice as human sacrifice?

  1. It’s often said that “God is love”; in other words, God is all-loving.  Judaism was practiced for several thousand years before Jesus Christ lived, yet Judaism does not have any well-developed ideas about heaven or hell.  Yet in Christianity, hell is introduced as an eternal torture device, where one might get sent for transgressions such as violating the Sabbath, or coveting too much.

Do you see these temporary human transgressions as deserving of trillions of years of torture?

  1. Many Christians state that people choose hell via their actions.  If a gunman walks up to a person, holds out a gun, and demands someone’s money, we don’t hold the gunman innocent if he shoots the victim who refuses.  Our justice system does not consider this ultimatum to be a meaningful option for the victim.

Why is god less guilty than the gunman if he sends people to burn forever?

  1. The New Testament gospels were written decades after Jesus’ death, most of them after any character described in the stories were also dead.  They also were not written in the same language as what the characters of the bible spoke (they spoke Aramaic, but the gospels were written in Greek).  In fact, most (if not all) of Jesus’ apostles were from lower class families, and were illiterate, so most lacked the means to write down their stories of Jesus.  It’s estimated that 90-97% of people in the area were illiterate at the time.

Do you have any concerns of the anecdotes about Jesus being embellished between the time of his death (around 35AD) and the time the final gospel was written, around 100AD?

  1. There is a great deal of inconsistency in the gospels.  For instance, Mark omits the virgin birth in Bethlehem.  Another example is between Matthew and Luke, where Matthew claims Jesus was born during the reign of Herod the Great, where Luke claims Jesus was born while Quirinius was governor of Syria, conducting the census; yet Herod died in 4BC, and the census took place 20 years later.

Do disagreements like these give you any cause for concern about the inerrancy of the gospels?

  1. King David was said to rule Judah approximately 1000 years before Jesus was born.  Very little archeological evidence exists for a historically important King David, and some scholars believe King David never existed at all; however, the relationship between Jesus Christ and King David was extremely important for early Christians, as this relationship was indicative of a prophesy fulfilled.  Jesus is said to be related to King David on his father, Joseph’s side.

If Jesus was conceived from a virgin, who became pregnant because of God, how could he have a blood relationship to King David?

  1. It’s often said by Christians (and other practitioners of Abrahamic faiths) that God allows for free will.  Yet, it seems likely that if a being is all-knowing, then they not only know what everyone thinks, but they also know what everyone will do.  For example, if God is all-knowing, that would imply that from the moment he created the universe, he knew that in late July, 2015, I would be writing these questions.  This would imply that in God’s world, everything is predetermined.  People such as John Calvin believed there was indeed an implication of predeterminism, which is why one of the tenets of Calvinism states that entry into heaven is pre-determined, as well.  This notion gave rise to the “Protestant Work Ethic”, where practitioners wanted to appear successful, so as to not give indications they might be one of those predetermined not to enter heaven.

How could an all-knowing God allow for free will in this context, when it would seem that everything that happens is pre-determined?  Wouldn’t that imply that everything bad that’s ever happened was indeed planned by God?

  1. There were many examples in the Old Testament where God intervened, often to cause or assist in the death of a great many people.

Why do you suppose it is that these sorts of interventions don’t happen anymore?  Is it more likely that God changed, or that humans’ interpretations of a Godly intervention changed?

  1. The earliest writings of Christianity were by Paul.  In 1 Corinthians 11:23, Paul writes that he was told by the lord about Jesus’ last supper.  It seems fairly clear that Paul never met Jesus while Jesus was alive, and if he had, he would certainly not have been on good terms with Jesus; yet, Paul has a tremendous amount of intimate knowledge about the details of the supper, despite not receiving this information from anyone in attendance.

Do you have any concerns that Paul might have invented the story?

  1. Early conversions from Judaism to Christianity were difficult, partly because of the concern about violating the first commandment, but partly because of a violation of Leviticus 17, which said consuming blood was prohibited.  Jesus was born and raised a Jew.

Given that the first historical presentation of Jesus presenting bread and wine as “body and blood”, does this give you any suspicions about the likelihood that Jesus Christ actually spoke those words?

14.  Many atheists objections to the 10 commandments centers around the notion that coveting something is quite a natural, and often involuntary reaction that might have provided a great deal of benefit during human evolution over the course of millions of years.  Christopher Hitchens famously referred to this as “thought crime”.

Do you think a person deserves punishment if they failed to suppress their covetous thoughts?

  1. The 1st commandment states “Thou shalt have no other gods before me”.

Doesn’t it seem strange that a god, capable of creating infinity, would be so demanding of people in a tiny corner of the universe, to worship him?  Doesn’t that seem like a uniquely human characteristic, to be so demanding of constant praise and reverence?

  1. Do you think it’s more moral that a person would behave in a certain way out of concern for reward or punishment, as would be the case for a person practicing Christianity out of concern for entry into heaven, or out of concern for condemnation in hell?
  1. In Christianity, there is a heaven, where people go after they die.  This seems to give the notion that life is eternal, which might be comforting to people when they consider death, especially when they are nearing death.  Obviously, an atheist who has considered the logical implications of rejection of Christianity, wouldn’t believe this.

Do you think part of the reason so many people hang on to their faith, and why religion has lasted as long as it has, is because part of being human is to fear death?

18.  On any given day, nearly 10,000 children under the age of 5 die from malnutrition-related disease.  These children spent their whole lives suffering, and the conclusion to their suffering was death.

Does it seem strange that the underlying suffering described in the bible merited God’s intervention, yet this daily natural massacre of children does not merit intervention?

19.  First and Second Timothy, as well as Titus, are attributed to Paul in the New Testament; yet there is wide agreement that these texts were not written by Paul.  In fact, of the 13 books in the New Testament attributed to Paul, maybe only 7 of them actually were.

Do authorship questions give you any concern about the reliability of the content of the New Testament?

20.  There is a problem when someone says “Prove [something] doesn’t exist.”  This is particularly problematic when this line is used in conjunction with a claim they are making, because of a philosophical concept called falsifiability.  For instance, prove bigfoot does not exist.  Prove Loch Ness monster does not exist.  Prove invisible dragons don’t exist.

It’s very difficult to disprove these things, despite our confidence that [at least some of] these do not exist.

However, for any of these claims, if compelling evidence were put forward for their existence, they could be proved right away, and the question would be put away forever (in other words, we know gorillas exist, so we don’t go around pondering whether they do or not).

Do you think there is enough evidence for god’s existence (particularly the God described in the Old and New Testament, Yahweh) such that the claim could be framed in these terms?  In other words, does God’s existence follow the pattern of unfalsifiability?

Why I’m Not A Christian

Sometime around 4004 BCE, god created a dude named Adam from the sand, and later, created a lady named Eve from his rib.  Eve convinced Adam to violate god’s command by eating fruit from the tree of knowledge, thereby trading their life characterized by perfect ignorance for a little bit of understanding about how the world works.  Later there was a global flood, a woman turned into a pillar of salt, and human life has sucked ever since…except for the few cases of divine intervention as described throughout the good book.

Fast forward 4000 years.  The savior was a supposed descendant of fictional king David.  David, who despite existing in the hearts and minds of Jews and Christians everywhere, is nowhere to be found in the actual historical record; his 14th generation grandson came along to fix everything.  Jesus preached, cast out demons, threw in a metaphor or two, walked on water, and figured out some terrific ways to ration out very small amounts of bread and fish to feed thousands of people.  He had his last supper, first described intimately in Corinthians by Paul, a guy who never actually met Jesus while he was alive, nor did he attend said supper.  Jesus then solved everything for everyone by being staked into a wooden cross to satisfy one final sacrificial desire of the deity, his supernatural dad, whose favorite things include creating infinite universes, infinitesimal cells, and basking in the blood of human sacrifice; lest this broad range of concerns causes us some skepticism about our dear leader’s intentions, we can refer back to other scriptural clues that reveal a variety of interests, including male genital mutilation, the prerequisite that no one use his name in vain, an almost constant war thirst, and a weekly sabbath, which requires his people to ceremoniously praise him.

Lucky us, humans are now saved because of the crucifixion.  Except life didn’t improve much for citizens in the Roman empire.  In fact, life for Roman citizens worsened, culminating a few hundred years later in economic collapse, nearly 1000 years of scientific and social stagnation, and subjugation of the masses by a variety of oppressors, notably the organization tasked with preserving and perpetuating the story of the crucified savior.

That is Christianity in its most condensed and irreverent form; if there is a hell, I’m surely bound for it simply for my over-simplification and lack of reverence to the hallowed story.

There are all sorts of logical problems woven into the official narrative, and throughout my life, it has been hard to ignore them, even when I tried my best.

An artifact that one cannot disconnect when analyzing this story is that, if there is an all knowing being, free will could not possibly exist.  It’s logically impossible. Since god knows all, then nothing happens that he didn’t know would happen; in that context, how could free will exist?  Everything in this framework is pre-determined.  When you take that to its next logical step, every bad thing that has ever happened – every rape, murder, infant death, and moral depravity was not only expected, but indeed planned, down to the minute detail, and this was exactly the known outcome from the moment god created the universe.  Therefore, how could our existence be characterized by free will when god knew everything that would happen before it occurred?

How obscene it is that we should worship a god who not only stands idly by while the worst sort of things happen, but in this framework, must have planned every excruciating moment of these horrors via his omniscience?  And since this god is all-knowing AND all-powerful, he watched and allowed these horrors despite his capacity to intervene.

Therefore, in my estimation, this all-knowing and all powerful god, by virtue of his guilt by association to these terrible crimes, is absent of goodness; I cannot imagine watching idly while an injustice unfolded, regardless of my ability to stop it.  Further, if I was certain I could stop it, yet refused to, it would make me worse than the criminal committing the injustice.  I would go so far as to say that no good being would allow the historical and present atrocities on earth to continue if they had the capacity to prevent it.

We can run away and hide in our comfy cave of ignorance, and pretend the reason for all these unspeakable crimes is because god has a plan we couldn’t possibly comprehend.  If this problem existed in a vacuum, perhaps I wouldn’t have continued my exploration into the world of dissonance religion creates.  But it doesn’t end there.  It’s an abyss of logic violations and moral depravity.

If one takes a literal approach, then consider Adam and Eve.  The most obvious violation of logic is raised because genetic and fossil evidence disproves Adam and Eve existed as described in Genesis.  If Adam and Eve didn’t exist, then why do we have original sin?  To reasonable practitioners, clearly, Adam and Eve is a fairy tale, right?  The problem here is Christianity is built on top of the idea that fallen man needed a savior.  But if there’s no original sin, then what do humans need saving from?  From a god who is appeasing himself?

I spent years ignoring this problem.

Suppose we don’t take a literal approach; like many denominations such as the one to which I belonged (ELCA Lutheran), hardly any emphasis at all is put on the evils of the old testament, such as the rape and slavery described in Deuteronomy, the bears god summoned at the request of Elisha to murder 42 children in 2 Kings 24, commandments to kill witches, God’s murder of Job’s 10 kids, the tens of thousands of godly murders, such as described in Numbers 16:49…the list goes on.

In the cherry-picked world of liberal Christian denominations, the old testament is not a problem, because Jesus gave a new covenant.  And even if one is disinclined to believe much of the Iron Age wisdom described in the new testament, a good Christian still believes Jesus came to take away our sins.

What sins?  Who called actions, thoughts, and inclinations sins?  Some of these diagnosed sins are as benign as thought crime – coveting thy neighbor’s wife and slave.  We’re shackled by sin as described in the old testament, yet somehow we’re able to concoct a reality where the old testament, save for a couple lines in Exodus, should mean nothing to us; let’s not forget Jesus was a Jew, and would have been a strict adherent to rules of the old testament – not a single line of the new testament was written before Jesus died.

Apologists spend years working through this problem, fitting their lens to get these dissonant facts to work in some consistent manner – when you actually look at the words apologists like this use, it really is word salad, completely absent of consistent logic to which we subject every other topic in our life – Christianity is the ultimate special pleading.

To the moderate, god-fearing church member, religion requires no logical consistency.  It simply provides a collection of incantations to recite to avoid the eternal fiery pits of hell; even in this context, hell is not a problem, because most people attend church occasionally, avoid too many mortal sins, and ask for forgiveness from time-to-time.  Most people have no inclination to murder, right?   That’s 1 mortal sin, right there!

And to the matter of an all-loving god creating hell?  Or sending otherwise decent people there for trillions of years because they broke a rule once or twice (such as having an involuntary, covetous thought)?  Well, let’s just not think about that…we’ll just allow this concern to silently haunt us for our entire lives, hoping and praying we’ve done enough so as to not anger the almighty (and all-loving).

Don’t forget, though, that this notion of hell was invented in the New Testament; in this context, the NT really is the proverbial wolf in sheep’s clothing, because with all its hippy-dippy talk of loving thy neighbor, it can’t manage to reconcile its extremely immoral invention of hell, nor does it recognize hell as a particularly existential problem for itself.

When I was a kid, maybe 13 years old, I proactively read the new testament.  No one even made me do it – I was a curious kid, and I’d been told the bible had some answers.  What strikes me now, as an adult, is how little a Lutheran adolescent needs to know to be confirmed.  Looking back, it was sort of a cheap trick that was played on me, because even though I was more proactive than my compatriots in religion class, that doesn’t mean I understood the underlying theology or philosophy, but worse than that, most kids understood it less than I did, which is to say, hardly at all.  But I digress.

In my reading of the NT, I might have skipped a book or two, but I was definitely concerned about reading the gospels and revelations, along with Paul’s greatest hits, like Romans and Corinthians.

I didn’t understand a lot of it, although it was clear Jesus was pretty damned motivated to cast demons out of people; it hadn’t occurred to me that those people might not have actually been afflicted with demons, nor did I have the wherewithal to recognize how incredibly dangerous it is to allow illiterate and uneducated people to harbor the idea that demons are real – that it causes people to kill albino children in Africa, and it compels holy men to stomp on pregnant women’s bellies to liberate her demons.  For 13 year old Tim, the idea of supernatural infestations seemed plausible, and I accepted it without any pushback or critical thought whatsoever.

But I remember reading a passage from the book of Mark, and I remember looking at it for 5 or 10 minutes – just a small passage.  I’d already read a different version of it in Matthew, but in Mark, it really made Jesus seem like a dick.  It was Mark 7:28:

And He was saying to her, “Let the children be satisfied first, for it is not good to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.”

That was Jesus’ response to a non-Jewish woman who asked if Jesus would cure her daughter from demonic possession.  It seems to indicate that Jesus thought the woman and her daughter were dogs, and that, even though Jesus was perfectly happy to travel from town-to-town casting demons out of everyone and their uncle, he couldn’t be bothered to help the little girl, who was at home in bed.

But then the woman grovelled a little, and Jesus relented.

Of course, Jesus was a Jew, and Jews would have certainly held an air of superiority over those godless gentiles who lived throughout the Roman empire at the time.  I didn’t really understand the historical context at the time, and I eventually got past it, but I remember having this distinct feeling that Jesus was kind of a asshole to the woman, calling her daughter a dog, and indicating that every Jew should get priority over a non-Jew, regardless of their affliction.

The real dilemma that exists here is that Jesus’ curt response in Mark (which was a lot more sugar-coated in Matthew 15:21) is that the Mark text probably was Jesus’ real response to the woman (if the event happened at all), and the Matthew text was just a spin job to make Jesus sound less-dickish.  Why?  Matthew was written after Mark, maybe 15 years later, even though Matthew occurs before Mark in the New Testament, and reading Mark by itself really just makes Jesus look like an apocalyptic preacher talking about the end of times.

It’s interesting that Matthew comes before Mark in the New Testament.  The purpose of this ordering is clear:  to make it seem like this is a chronological representation of when the texts were written.  But these books don’t occur in chronological order, and the reason for it becomes clear as you approach it with a more skeptical eye.

Stepping back from gospel inconsistencies (there are tons of them), one of the gross logical violations that occurred to me as I began to investigate the new testament was the problem of timing.  Mark, which was the first of the synoptic gospels, was written as late as 70CE.  This is more than 30 years after Jesus Christ died.

Aside:  There was a movement in the 1930s called the Mass-Observation movement.  The central tenet was that only through a profound collection of empirical data could we get deeper insights into how the world works.  During this time, 2 of the founders of the Mass-Observation movement collected extensive diaries from practitioners of the movement; 30 years later, the founders reached out to surviving people who had originally given them their diaries, and this was their observation:

Memory plays fearful tricks…we wrote to the authors, asking them, without referring to anyone or any document, to tell the story again.  Half a dozen obliged.  Any resemblance between the original story and the version recounted 30 years later was almost entirely coincidental.  They got everything wrong; time, place, sequence of events.  In almost every case they moved themselves closer to the centre of events; what had happened to a neighbor now happened to them.

*Bozo Sapiens: Why to Err is Human.  By Ellen Kaplan, Michael Kaplan

This is a pretty major circumstantial problem for Christianity.  Mark, written by an anonymous author in a different language than the characters in the story spoke, decades after the events, is the equivalent of a collection of hundreds of post-it notes, and supposedly recounts accurately the events of Jesus’ life, even though it wasn’t even written until 30 years after Jesus died.

I’ve heard apologists claim that the corroboration of Mark in Matthew and Luke is proof of the events’ factual basis; of course, Matthew and Luke describe everything that was written in Mark, so the real likelihood here is that Matthew and Luke referenced the original Mark writings, along with some other common stories (perhaps even the elusive “Q” document).

If the human memory issue I mentioned with Mark is the proverbial coffin, then I think one of the nails is the fact that Bethlehem was never mentioned in Mark…nor was it mentioned in any of Paul’s earlier writings, around 50CE, 15-20 years before Mark.

Why does that matter?  Bethlehem provides proof for would-be Christians familiar with the old testament that Jesus is the descendant of another fictional character, King David.  God told David that his descendants would always be on the throne; the theological problem for Jewish conversion was that Jesus did not seem enough like a Davidian descendant, and so the spin that Matthew and Luke did more than a decade after Mark was to fill the David gap; isn’t it a lovely story of a poor Jewish boy born in Bethlehem 1000 years (14 generations, according to Matthew) after the so-called King David.  It’s no wonder that the more robust Matthew comes before Mark in the New Testament, despite being written after Mark.  The first thing Matthew discusses is Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem.

Did Mark and Paul omit Bethlehem?  Did they not know about it?  Even if Mark did miss it, there’s still Jesus’ personification on earth, Paul.  Paul wrote half the new testament.  Yet, he never mentioned Bethlehem, either.  The apologist might respond “Paul never even really met Jesus during his life, so how would Paul know where Jesus was born?”

I don’t mean to straw-man any potential antagonist here, but that’s a pretty bad response.  It’s bad enough Paul never met Jesus while he was alive.  It’s bad enough Paul wasn’t at the last supper that he described in Corinthians, where Jesus supposedly broke bread.  But to miss such a crucial piece of the puzzle that would validate Jesus as the real descendant of King David and the fulfillment of the old testament prophesy is pretty detrimental to his case.

Early Christianity (1st century) would have been quite malleable anyway, considering the entire population of Christians during this time numbered around 7500 by the end of the first century.  There was plenty of room for embellishment and revisions between the Pauline writings and the time the synoptic gospels were written.  Jews and gentiles were the primary target of conversion during this time, although Jews were harder to convert than gentiles, probably because they were more educated and had a more rigid framework than gentiles.

Looking back to Paul, who probably died before Mark was written, and who did most of his work in the 20 years following Jesus Christ’s death, it’s interesting, I think, that in the desert, Paul saw a vision of Jesus and then went blind for 3 days.  Today’s medical practitioners might be concerned that his ailment was less supernatural, and more along the lines of an aneurysm or stroke, perhaps heat stroke.  I’m not a doctor, so I’ll digress on that, but it seems quite unlikely to me that Paul, the antsy proselytizer, truly saw a vision of Jesus before he went blind.

The leap of faith required to accept that Paul was receiving messages from Jesus, including stories of the last supper, is pretty high.  When you ask the question “is Paul worth believing?” I don’t know how you get to yes.  Christianity assigns a very high value to Paul’s narrative, yet it’s remarkably unsubstantiated.

Modern Christianity would almost certainly not exist if not for Paul.  He was the catalyst to get it moving, and he presumably was quite the tenacious (and probably charismatic) guy.  He spent decades traveling around the Mediterranean, preaching to Jews and gentiles, alike.  10 years after Christ’s death, there were maybe 1000 Christians in the Roman empire.  By the time Paul died (67 CE), there were maybe 2500.  Almost all of these conversions would have been due to Paul’s work.

But that brings up another issue.  To a good Jew at the time (and a kosher Jew now), Leviticus 17:14 forbids drinking blood (Therefore I said to the sons of Israel, ‘You are not to eat the blood of any flesh, for the life of all flesh is its blood; whoever eats it shall be cut off.’).

To a practicing Jew, which is what many early Christians were, this blood issue was serious business, and the prospect of ritually drinking Jesus’ blood would have been horrifying.  In fact, it probably would have been a deal-breaker to many Jews; however, to pagans, mystery cultists, and practitioners of other Greco-Roman traditions, drinking blood (imitation or otherwise) was no big deal, and was certainly borrowed from the Dionysus and Mithras myths.

There are plenty of examples of how Christianity borrowed from competing traditions.  I’m not terribly interested in comparative mythology, but my point here is that, even in early Christianity, there were sharp divisions between Jewish adherents and the more Pauline/Hellenistic traditions.  Early Christianity had different sales pitches, depending on who the target audience was – if it was Jews, Jesus’ body and blood part of the story would have been downplayed, and if it was certain gentiles, the body and blood would have been highlighted.  This evolution went on for hundreds of years as Christian doctrines evolved.

Modern Christians are inheritors of Paul’s legacy; but there’s a pretty important character that gets minimized in the Pauline tradition – James.  Who is James?  James was Jesus’ biological brother, and he preached Jewish Christianity in Jerusalem until his death in 62CE.  I don’t remember James being mentioned a single time, either in religion classes nor during a sermon, for the entire time I was a Christian.  There’s a good reason for that.

James’ died a few years prior to Mark being written.  8 years later, the Jewish temple in Jerusalem was destroyed after the first Jewish-Roman war, and Christianity in Jerusalem was squashed.  Christians in Jerusalem, who had inherited James’ teachings, fled outside the city.  It is thought by many that a line exists between early Jerusalem Christians and an autonomous sect of Christianity, called Ebionites.  Ebionites never enjoyed a tremendous membership, probably because there was not enough meaningful difference between Judaism and them.

There are some meaningful differences between the Pauline tradition (along with the gospels of Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John) and the Ebionite, but the one that’s most striking to me is that Ebionites contended there was no virgin birth.  In other words, a sect who was practicing the Christianity Christ’s brother taught believed Jesus was not divine and not born to a virgin.  They also rejected Paul had any sort of meaningful communication with a dead Jesus.

Any problems here?  Anything seem funny?  Considering Mark didn’t mention the virgin birth, and considering that the virgin birth was not introduced until Matthew around 85CE, and considering there were plenty of Greco-Roman traditions at the time that did reference virgin births of other mythical deities, I think it’s clear that the virgin birth (and the Bethlehem origin) was concocted as an embellishment in the decades following Paul’s death (67CE).

Remember, these stories were mostly composed of oral traditions, along with Paul’s writings during his travels around the Mediterranean – they crossed seas and underwent decades of modifications to suit their conversion agenda.

The title of this post is “Why I’m Not A Christian”.  Christianity doesn’t work.  That’s why the New Testament mix-and-matches chronology, and it’s why apologists have to work so hard to make it as monolithic as possible.  Christianity is just stories, borrowed from earlier myths, cooked up by illiterate, Aramaic-speaking fisherman, undergoing decades of embellishment by Greek writers and early practitioners, multiple-language translations, and eventually composed by committees re-assembling thousands of scraps of parchment.

In all these stories, Jesus eventually died on the cross.  There’s a pretty big collection of discrepancies surrounding his death in the synoptic gospels – time of day, day of week, when questioning occurred by the high priests, when the robe was put on, etc.  Regardless of the contradictions, one thing has always seemed interesting.  Matthew 27:51 says

And behold, the veil of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom; and the earth shook and the rocks were split.The tombs were opened, and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised; and coming out of the tombs after His resurrection they entered the holy city and appeared to many

It’s interesting, I think, that in a nation full of copious note takers, no one noticed an earth quake and risen dead people walking around.  I wonder why that is…

Of course, not a single bit of this information is necessary to reject Christianity or to be skeptical of a personal, intervening deity, but I find it interesting to dig into the historical context of Christianity, because even the tiniest amount of injected skepticism renders so much of it to be just another Roman myth. And for a species inclined to deity invention and worship, it’s no wonder that it still has practitioners.

Bertrand Russell once riffed on the idea of a celestial teapot, revolving the sun, between Mars and Earth.  This teapot, he said, cannot be disproven.  There are plenty of times throughout our lives where the expectation is that we believe something despite an absence of evidence.  But to Bertrand Russell’s point, the burden of proof should not be placed on a person to disprove something, particularly when there is no clear path to falsify it; rather, the burden of proof should be on the one positing the existence of something.  In this framework, it is not anyone’s burden to disprove god or the teapot; rather, there should be evidence put forward to give some good justification for their existence.  In my estimation, there is none, either for god or the teapot.

Most Christians, I think, are concerned about whether or not there’s going to be a party after the show.  I suspect there won’t be.  But that conclusion is not an occasion to weep about the party that won’t happen; rather, it’s an opportunity to recognize that the show we have the good fortune to attend is important, and those details about which many of us had hoped were being managed by the all-knowing, all-loving deity are in actuality our responsibility to manage.

Hawking

The famous Deist Benjamin Franklin said that the only certainties in life are death and taxes.  In that respect, the answer, as Douglas Adams put it, is indeed 42.  Yet the big question is still elusive.  How do we get to our proverbial 42?

The ability to throw away bad ideas, focus our attention on better alternatives, and live for the only moment about which we are completely certain we will experience gives us our best chance to get to it; even if we come to different conclusions about what our individualistic path is, it still makes sense to do it.  My personal goal is to live my life happily, try to learn a little bit more about the amazing universe we inherited, and from time-to-time, share some of my time, knowledge, and love with the people who matter most to me.

Religion is not just unnecessary to these ends, but indeed it is detrimental, because it encourages us to believe that life is infinite, that our moments here matter less than ones coming to us after we die, that prayer is useful to solve our problems, and that terrestrial priority should be given to a deity who neither deserves it, earns it, nor would need it if he existed.  It was bronze age citizens who concocted a  god that shared a remarkable number of its characteristics with the age’s worst sort of people.

God Cured My Athlete’s Foot

The moment a person says something like “God cured my [insert disease here]” or “God helped our team win”, that person assumes ownership of (at least some of) the things their God failed to do, such as his failure to prevent, every single day, 8,500 malnutrition-related deaths of children under 5.  And before that person is done reconciling that problem, I’d be interested in hearing about their thoughts on the wide-scale rape, murder, disease, plagues, and environmental catastrophes that are so permitted in this paradigm.

Of course, the reason I think these things happen is not because some celestial dictator makes it so, or turns a blind eye to it, or waits in the wings to comfort victims who have managed their ascent to heaven (if they were lucky enough to be born of the “right” religion).  Rather, I think these phenomena happen because the world is an extraordinarily hard place, and because its inhabitants, by nature of their cultural, geographic, and physical limitations, are unable, or sometimes unwilling, to prevent them.

This tunnel vision Christianity and other monotheisms encourage is facilitated by the notion of a personal god, while its logical weaknesses are glossed over by its practitioners, with the statements “God loves me” and “God works in mysterious ways.”  That’s a nice sentiment, until you give some thought to the injustice this mentality permits.  God might have helped to stop some of those 8500 babies from dying of malnutrition today, but instead, he helped you score a touchdown.  I guess you’re one of God’s “chosen people“, just like the bible says.

One of the characteristics of probability is that it can create illusions for a species already prone to hyperbole and pattern-seeking.  For instance, natural remission rate for some cancers might be as high as 20% [http://rationalwiki.org/wiki/Spontaneous_remission].  If you’re lucky enough to fall into that population, you might literally feel like you were selected by God to be cured, if you’ve already been conditioned to the notion that God cures the people he loves.

Similarly, there might be a day when only 7500 children worldwide die from malnutrition-related disease.  Was that a good day for God, or was it an artifact of statistical error [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Standard_error]?

My point is that maybe it’s time to put aside these childish superstitions and get to work on the real problems confronting humanity, such as how to stop 8,500 kids from dying of malnutrition every single day, rather than relying on some personal god to fix our problems, or provide a verbose apology for all the bad things that happen.

The Problem Of Christianity

There’s a serious problem when you make the claim that there is a God, and that he’s worth worshiping.  This would have been particularly true for the population that created Yaweh.  These people rarely survived into their 40s (if they managed survive past the age of 5), and they lived lives so unendindgly awful that death was hardly worse than life.  The problem of the God claim is this:  how could this God be worth worshiping for people who are so destined to live such awful lives?  Among other things, the problem of evil

Half of this problem is solved by the idea of heaven.  Even though it’s bad now, it’s going to be great once you die.

But any good marketing strategy is multi-faceted, and more pressure is needed to encourage the acceptance mechanism (aside from inquisition and threat of heresy charges).  Enter original sin.  In other words, we’re born sick and commanded to be well, and this world is an experiment where children get to feel God’s love via starvation, tuberculosis, innumerable plagues, and water-borne disease, because their ancestor ate fruit from a tree at the urging of their wicked grandmother.

It isn’t enough that life is bad, and only going to get worse, but it is also the case that humans are born into a heritage of depravity for which there is but one solution:  God.

The interplay between sin and heaven is what makes this marketing strategy so effective, and why, thousands of years later, people still buy into it.  Even in western countries, whose populations are significantly better off than their Bronze-aged ancestors, this interplay strikes a resounding chord.

Stephen Fry recently made the news by responding to an interviewer who asked him about what he would do if this supposed Deity confronted him.  He would ask God why there is bone cancer.

I don’t like this sort of hypothetical game, and the way a lot of atheists respond, because they allow monotheists to smuggle in the weird idea that a God, who is responsible for the universe’s creation, was the same God who “revealed” himself to mass-murderer characters in the bible, such as Moses and Jephthah.  For many years, the underlying ideas in Deism seemed quite a lot more reasonable to me than anything the major monotheisms put forward, and the revelation issue was at the heart of that.

The revelation stories in the bible seemed dishonest to me for the bulk of my adult life.

The irrationality within scriptures probably leads a lot of believers to see these things in a similar light.  Most moderate Christians I know don’t literally believe Adam and Eve or Noah were actual accounts of the origin of life.  They see them as allegories, useful for something…even as a Christian, I never could tell what.  Likewise, many apologists I’ve met don’t believe God personally commanded the deaths of hundreds of thousands of victims throughout the old testament.  Rather, believers cherry-pick – sure Moses brought down the 10 commandments, but he wasn’t a murderer commanded by God to slaughter innocent women and children, or to encourage torture and rape.  And sure, Jesus was the son of God and rose from the dead, but he wasn’t a political zealot.  In other words, the bible is the word of God, except for the parts we don’t like.

As someone who has given these issues some skeptical analysis, I find it interesting that people are able to ignore this dissonance.  I suppose the answer, for those concerned about an eternity in hell, is to ignore these paradoxes…then when something good happens, give credit to God.

On Heaven

I think the first time that most children give their parent’s selected God much attention is when they realize people can die.  Sure, heaven is present in various conversations children have with their parents during their formative years, but the human capacity to consider our own mortality is what makes heaven worthy of much consideration.  It must be traumatic to first piece together that existence will someday end.

Aside from the existential fears about a finite mortality, I think the other factor that contributes to heaven’s perpetuation is its cosmic justice. When a baby dies, people recognize this as the worst sort of tragedy. The baby never got a chance to live its life or defend itself against a natural world intent on killing everything in it.  This striking unfairness needs correction: enter heaven. Heaven forgives this injustice, and the almighty, all-powerful deity who allowed it.  After all, a God who allows such outcomes might not be praise-worthy if his servants reflected on the fact that he literally spends all day killing babies, but provides no benefit in exchange for his sacrificial victims.  Heaven is therefore a necessary fiction to provide motivation for lifelong worship and reverence in a cruel and unfair world this god so immaculately and carefully designed.

What about people who misbehave, yet still manage to avoid lowly, terrestrial punishment?  Most people are offended by justice-ducking, because it violates their ideas about about what criminals deserve for the harm they cause.  Heaven solves this problem too – if those jerks didn’t get their comeuppance during their flesh life, they certainly will once they die.

But what about those half-way decent people who feel bad for their bad behavior?  Those doomed miscreants surely have potential to improve as they age, right?  The heaven paradigm manages to solve this, too.  Just behave better, apologize constantly, worship, and give all your extra cash to your church, and you’re a shoe-in.  Death bed confessions are proof of how serious some people take these matters.

Heaven has something for everyone.

One of the sneaking suspicions I had earlier in my life was that heaven seemed unbelievable…not in the sense that it seemed great (although I assumed it must have some lovely qualities), but that it ran counter to almost everything else we experience or have ever experienced.  Invoking supernaturalism as the cure for our natural state seemed like the ultimate copout: dishonest drivel that owes its framework to people who were too scared to imagine themselves not existing.

The dilemma I ran into was that, if humans were susceptible to the pressures of other animals, and if humans were preceded by less-human animals (Neanderthal, Heidelbergensis, Erectus, etc), then our ancestors would have encountered the stark realities of what it means to be an animal in nature: it’s challenging, there are predators who constantly want to eat you, food is not guaranteed, infection is always right around the corner, as are injuries and the occasional inter or intra-tribe homicide…in a word, almost everything about life is nature’s attempt to kill you.

Why should humans be an exception to that rule? To the Christian, it’s important to distinguish humans from other animals, but the undeniable truth to which one arrives after investigating biology and evolution is that humans are not remarkably different than a lot of other animals.

The takeaway is simply this: heaven would have been a lovely invention for people who were closer to the perilous realities of nature than we are today. In the absence of the ability to prevent death, the world seems quite cruel. Heaven is the perfect antidote to this reality, and that seems to be the most likely reason why people invented heaven in the first place.

The More Insidious Side

I often joke that you can’t get me to do anything unless you incentivize me with eternal reward or threaten me with eternal punishment.  The intent is a little tongue-in-cheek mockery of heaven.  But it really is obscene that the underlying tenet for many Christians’ moral framework is the notion that we can’t behave ourselves unless we’re threatened with hellfire.  What’s to stop anyone from raping and killing everyone they want?

To paraphrase Penn Jillette, I already have killed and raped exactly the number of people I want to, and that number is 0.

It’s horrifying what little faith Christians have in humanity and in themselves.  What do they think people did before religion?  How did we even manage to survive?  (you know, before god flooded the earth and killed everyone and sent bears to kill 42 kids because they called some guy “baldy”).

I think the worse thing, though, is the idea that people need heaven as an incentive to behave themselves.  It’s interesting that Christians mock Muslims over their theology that states they’ll get 72 virgins in heaven if they die a martyr.  Is the Christian heaven less absurd or unreasonable?

If a person can’t find a way to be a decent person without the expectation they’ll get eternity in paradise, then that person ought to be much more feared than the atheist who doesn’t think that eternal paradise is real.