Christianity, 10 Knockout Punches: Number 6
By David Madison at 2/14/2020
Verifiable information about Jesus doesn’t exist
One of the best stories in the gospels is found in John 8. Jesus defends—and apparently saves—a woman who “was caught in the very act of committing adultery.” The religious busybodies who monitored such things brought her to Jesus, and wanted to know if he endorsed the “law of Moses,” which stipulated death by stoning for the crime. A picture of calm and compassion, Jesus answered, “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” Famously, he bent down to write with his finger on the ground, and when he straightened up, the accusers had slunk away:
What more could you want, in crafting an ideal image of Jesus? Here he’s far better, by the way, than the pedantic Jesus in Matthew 5, who insists that “until heaven and earth pass away, not one iota, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished.”
Unfortunately, this text in John 8 (actually 7:53 – 8:11) was not originally in the gospel at all. Nor it found in any of the other gospels. The story seems to have been a floater; a footnote in the NRSV reads, “The most ancient authorities lack 7.53—8.11; other authorities add the passage here or after 7.36 or after 21.25 or after Luke 21.38, with variations of text; some mark the passage as doubtful.”
The use of the word “authorities” is pious posturing. Why not just say “other old manuscripts”? None of them can be considered “authorities.” But readers should be fully alert when they read, “some mark the passage as doubtful.” And this should be worrisome: “with variations of text.” In other words, copyists—and there were hundreds along the way over the centuries—made alterations as they saw fit.
Getting the Bible to us was a sloppy process, but the main concern should be the origin of the stories themselves. Readers—at least those who want the gospels to be history—should ask of any gospel story, “Where did this come from? What were the author’s sources? Was anyone there, on the spot, taking notes?” Hence the story of Jesus and the woman taken in adultery is in jeopardy especially. It wasn’t in the gospel to begin with, and we have no clue where it came from. In no way does it qualify as verifiable information about Jesus. A storyteller ranking high on the empathy scale could very well have made it up; this might be a fragment of the stuff commonly found in the saint-legend genre.
It’s not hard to spot texts that have been made up. At the beginning of the first gospel written, we find this verse (Mark 1:12):
“And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.”
This author displays the universal perspective of a novelist, i.e., he knows that it was “the spirit” that drove Jesus into the wilderness. The forty-day count is probably meant to associate Jesus with the wandering of the Israelites in the desert for forty years—unless we could be sure that someone was “on the spot” keeping track of the days. A historian would want to know as well how to verify that angels waited on Jesus.
When Matthew saw this text, he got really carried away, turning one verse into eleven, and adding dialogue between Jesus and the devil. It’s really hard to imagine that someone was there taking notes! Of course, there is nothing implausible about Jesus and the woman taken in adultery, but with the Temptation Story (Mark, and especially Matthew), we move into fantasy. And there are so many examples of this in the gospels, e.g. in Mark 9 we read that Jesus glowed brightly on a mountaintop while chatting with Moses and Elijah. Even levelheaded Christians can look at fantasy elements in a movie and say, “Well, that doesn’t happen in real life”—which totally applies to so much of what we find in the gospels.
Perhaps, at the outset, the Jesus-epic wasn’t even intended as history. R. G. Price makes a case that the gospel of Mark was written as allegory:
“…the motivating factor that drove the author to write the story that we now call the Gospel of Mark was the destruction of the temple and the war itself. Jesus was just a literary device used in an allegorical framework to tell a story about how the Jews brought destruction upon themselves. That’s what the story is really about…Jesus is a device used for the telling of that tale.
“…if the First Jewish-Roman War had never taken place, and the temple had not been destroyed, then the Gospel called Mark would never have been written, and consequently, none of the other stories about Jesus would have been written either. This means that Christianity as we know it would never have come into existence…” (R. G. Price, Deciphering the Gospels Proves Jesus Never Existed, p. 2)
The horrific words of Jesus in Mark 13—so much at odds with the empathetic Jesus of John 8—certainly makes sense in the context of the swaths of destruction left by the Jewish-Roman War. Are you bothered by R. G. Price’s title? Go ahead, plunge right in—find out why the gospels themselves fuel suspicion that Jesus himself was made up.
Of course, there is little patience among church folks for doubting that the gospels tell the real story of Jesus—the whole truth and nothing but. At the same time, however, there is little grasp of how history is written, and why the gospels cannot be filed under “History.”
Here’s a thought experiment to illustrate the point. Abraham Lincoln died in 1865, but what if no biography about him had been written for forty years? Then, in 1915, a Lincoln enthusiast announces he’s going to write the Lincoln story.
An Interviewer: What a great idea! That will take a lot of research, won’t it? Looking through archives for letters, diaries, and newspaper articles.
Lincoln Enthusiast: No, not really. In fact, as far as I know, there aren’t any letters or diaries that say anything about Lincoln. I don’t think he ever ended up in the newspapers.
Interviewer: So I guess you’ll have to track down as many people as you can who knew Lincoln and talk to them.
Lincoln Enthusiast: No, they’re all dead by now. I’ve heard stories that have been making the rounds for forty years, but mainly I’m going to use my imagination. I’ve prayed for God’s help, and I know for sure that he’ll inspire my thoughts to write the true story.
This guy’s approach is precisely that used by the gospel writers, who had no choice, actually. For Lincoln, of course, there are mountains of documents for any researcher to use; for Jesus there are none. And the gospel authors certainly used their imaginations, as even a casual reading of their writings makes abundantly clear.
Moreover, we can question one of his claims, i.e., that he would use “stories that have been making the rounds for forty years.” New Testament scholars have pinned a lot of hope on oral tradition, supposedly reliable oral tradition—stories about Jesus that can be trusted. Other than “divine inspiration”—which is recognized as special pleading—what else do they have to go on? Reliable oral tradition must be how it happened, right?
If only there were evidence.
The New Testament epistles, written before the gospels, are notoriously devoid of information about the teaching and deeds of Jesus. The apostle Paul especially, who travelled so extensively in the early Christian world—what better way to be exposed to the oral tradition supposedly in circulation?—fails to say anything in this letters about the miracles and preaching of Jesus. And, embarrassingly, Mark’s account of the Eucharist seems to be based on Paul’s words in I Corinthian 11! Paul wasn’t at the Last Supper, and claims that he hallucinated Jesus speaking to him: “…for I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you.” Paul trusted his own inspired imagination!
The theory of reliable oral tradition breaks down on several levels, but it is undermined even by the gospel writers themselves. Mark, for example, doesn’t portray the disciples as the brightest bunch, prompting David Fitzgerald to observe:
“In much of Mark’s gospel, Jesus scolds his disciples for being clueless, missing the point of his teachings, being slothful and even disobedient. Yet these dim, lazy disciples are supposed to be the same ones who carefully memorized all these stories about how incompetent they were? You can’t have your dutifully-memorized cake and cluelessly eat it too.” (David Fitzgerald, Jesus: Mything in Action, Vol. II, pp. 22-23, emphasis added).
And if Jesus had been predicting that the Kingdom of God would arrive soon, what would have been the point of “carefully memorizing all these stories”? To hand them down to whom? Moreover—think about it—if you came home from church and were asked what the preacher said, could you repeat exactly, without error, verbatim, even a few sentences from the sermon? And would your report remain unchanged, intact, if repeated endlessly for decades?
Calvin Coolidge was once asked by his wife, when he got home from church, “What did the preacher talk about?” “Sin,” Coolidge said. “Well, what did he say about it?” “He’s against it.” Cal left it at that.
Tom Dykstra has offered a careful of analysis of this weak link in New Testament scholarship in a 23-page chapter, “The Chimera of Oral Tradition,” in Mark, Canonizer of Paul, pp. 41-64). He closely follows the work of Thomas Brodie, The Birthing of the New Testament.
With no documentation to back up the gospels, with only the slightest chance that the words of Jesus could have been preserved correctly—what to do? How do New Testament scholars hold on for dear life to the precious idea that the gospels can be trusted? They have worked hard at inventing criteria of authenticity that supposedly offer the support they need; these are weak links too. Richard Carrier, in an 85-page chapter in Proving History: Bayes’s Theorem and the Quest for the Historical Jesus, discusses 18 of the criteria for authenticity that have been proposed. They don’t hold up well.
David Fitzgerald analyzes of couple dozen of these proposed criteria in Jesus: Mything in Action, Vol. I, for example:
If something doesn’t “smack of legendary development, fabrication or embellishment,” then it may supposedly be trusted, which is still—without documentation—a variety of wishful thinking. Besides, so little in the gospels may qualify. As Fitzgerald puts it, “Problem: The gospels show exactly this, in spades [i.e., legendary development, fabrication, embellishment]. For example, just compare Mark’s earlier no-frills, fallible human Jesus with John’s doubt-free SuperJesus.” (p. 139)
One of the most famous of these ploys is the embarrassment criterion, i.e., if we find something in the gospels that is embarrassing, then it must be there because it’s authentic. One of the obvious flaws here is that something that is embarrassing to us may not have been embarrassing at all to the gospel author. One example is Luke 14:26, the text in which Jesus says that hatred of family is required for those who want to be his disciples.
This text has tested the ingenuity of countless apologists who try to explain why Jesus couldn’t have meant that—although the Greek word for hate, miseo, is right there and unmistakable. Did Jesus actually say such a thing? We have no way of knowing, but there’s no doubt whatever that Luke wrote it. Why would he do that? Part of his agenda was protecting the early Jesus cult: he didn’t want followers who had divided loyalties, and he wasn’t embarrassed at all to put this strident requirement in writing.
The ecclesiastical bureaucrats whose mission it is to preserve the faith—priests and preachers are propagandists for the Jesus cult—are not inclined to bring all these gospel problems to the attention of the folks who settle comfortably into their Sunday pews. With sufficient piety they read the gospel stories from the pulpit, and expect them to be taken at face value. Apparently, familiarity offers assurance that the stories must be true. Besides, how could the Bible be wrong?
Chances are, in fact, that the bureaucrats, during their seminary days, skipped courses that focused on critical gospel study. They loved their Jesus, and that was all that mattered. They may have suspected, but didn’t want to find out for sure, that verifiable information about Jesus does not exist.
This is Knockout Punch Number 6, one of most formidable. There are four more punches to come, but do we really need any more?
David Madison was a pastor in the Methodist Church for nine years, and has a PhD in Biblical Studies from Boston University. His book, Ten Tough Problems in Christian Thought and Belief: a Minister-Turned-Atheist Shows Why You Should Ditch the Faith, was published by Tellectual Press in 2016. It was reissued in 2018 with a new Foreword by John Loftus.