Robert Conner

No one knows for sure what the hell the gospels mean and no one ever has. That, I believe, is the only logical conclusion a completely disinterested reader of the gospels could reach now or could have reached nineteen centuries ago. In point of fact, Christians were in disagreement about what even constituted a real gospel for at least the first two centuries after the death of Jesus. Of the twenty or so gospels—and possible versions of the current fourthat are known or suspected to have been knocking around in Christianity’s infancy, only the Big Four were finally declared “canonical” and those four are in substantial disagreement at various seemingly crucial points. If, as evangelicals are wont to claim, the Holy Spirit used human authors to pen a record for the ages on which belief could be firmly based, then the Holy Spirit made a right shit job of it.

According to the earliest gospel, not even Jesus’ closest disciples, who had left everything behind to follow him,[i] seem to know what’s going on. Even in the crucial matter of his death and resurrection “they did not understand what he meant and were afraid to ask him about it.”[ii] Despite having been in close attendance during his preaching career, the disciples didn’t put it all together until after Jesus’ execution and resurrection according to John: “At first his disciples did not understand all this. Only after Jesus was glorified did they realize that these things had been written about him and that these things had been done to him”[iii] an inadvertent textual heads-up alerting us to the probability of numerous ex eventu “prophecies” as well as other more or less obvious apologetic back formations.

The gospel of Mark tries to Jesusplain the universal lack of comprehension by claiming that Jesus taught in a way that obscured his real meaning“When he was alone, the Twelve and the others around him asked him about the parables. He told them, ‘The secret of the kingdom of God has been given to you. But to those on the outside everything is said in parables so that, “they may be ever seeing but never perceiving, and ever hearing but never understanding; otherwise they might turn and be forgiven!’”[iv] Contradicting the spirit of the shopworn John 3:16, Matthew bluntly states, “many are called, but few are chosen.”[v]

Likewise, “[Paul’s] letters contain some things that are hard to understand, which ignorant and unstable people distort, as they do the other Scriptures, to their own destruction.”[vi] That such “distortion” occurred early in Christianity is clear from a forged letter of “Paul”: Their teaching will spread like gangrene. Among them are Hymenaeus and Philetus, who have departed from the truth. They say that the resurrection has already taken place, and they destroy the faith of some.”[vii] It is obvious, even from Paul’s genuine epistle—“how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead?”[viii]—that some evidently taught the resurrection had taken place metaphorically or “spiritually” while others took it to be physical and others denied it altogether. Paul’s prattle about a “spiritual body”[ix] is “an oxymoron as mystifying as a square circle.”[x] Not only did early Christianity pullulate “false brothers secretly brought in,”[xi] great numbers of false teachers,[xii] and “many deceivers, who do not acknowledge Jesus Christ as coming in the flesh,”[xiii] the first anti-Christs were Christian teachers: “They went out from us, but they did not really belong to us. For if they had belonged to us, they would have remained with us; but their going showed that none of them belonged to us.”[xiv] Ironically, the first congregations of believers are warned—in a letter widely acknowledged to have been forged in Paul’s name— “not to become easily unsettled or alarmed by the teaching allegedly from us—whether by a prophecy or by word of mouth or by letter—asserting that the day of the Lord has already come.”[xv]

 The Roman critic Celsus observed that as Christians increased in number, “they are divided and form factions and each wants his own sect,” concluding, “they still have one thing in common, so to speak, if indeed they have that in common—the name [Christian].”[xvi] By the 2nd century various sects had reinterpreted the resurrection as taking place individually through the sacraments: “it is necessary for the gnostic to obtain the resurrection while being in this world, i.e., before he has to leave it at his death…this resurrection takes place in and by means of the images and symbols which are the sacraments.”[xvii] The documentary evidence from early Christianity therefore backs up Celsus’ claim that some sects rejected “the doctrine of the resurrection according to scripture,”[xviii] leaving aside the problem that “scripture” could be interpreted in multiple ways and that each of the various interpretations could be still be defended as the “correct” one, a state of confusion still very much apparent in evangelical scholarly publications.

Although its founding documents reveal something approaching doctrinal trial by combat among the first Christians, who wrote and read their texts with bizarre results, among evangelicals certain assumptions have evolved, first among them that the Bible is the product of a single Divine Author. Several corollaries logically derive from this primal conviction, namely that the Bible exhibits textual unity and is a closed system.

Given the belief in the unity of a closed text, evangelical End Timers can confidently pluck numbers from Daniel and Revelation, combine them into systems, and fearlessly predict both Jesus’ Return and the outbreak of Armageddon. That this technique has repeatedly failed the Seventh-Day Adventists, the Jehovah’s Witnesses, and countless evangelical would be prophets rarely results in questioning the basic assumptions on which their miscalculations are based.

For the aforementioned ERIC, the Evangelical Resurrection Industrial Complex, the textual unity of a closed system predicts that the conflicting and confusing resurrection accounts can be successfully harmonized. Scholars trained while still under the influence of this assumption, scholars who should know better, may still fall to reflexively harmonizing the resurrection accounts and evangelical resurrection apologists routinely appeal to harmonization as a primary proof of facticity.

[i] Mark 10:28.
[ii] Mark 9:32 (NIV).
[iii] John 12:16 (NIV).
[iv] Mark 4:10-14. Compare Mark 4:34, Matthew 13:34.
[v] Matthew 22:14.
[vi] 2 Peter 3:16.
[vii] 2 Timothy 2:17-18.
[viii] 1 Corinthians 15:13.
[ix] 1 Corinthians 15:44.
[x] Allison, Dale C. Resurrecting Jesus: The Earliest Christian Tradition and Its Interpreters, 286.
[xi] Galatians 2:4.
[xii] 2 Timothy 4:3-4.
[xiii] 2 John 1:7.
[xiv] 1 John 2:19.
[xv] 2 Thessalonians 2:2.
[xvi] Origen, Contra Celsum III, 10, 12.
[xvii] Van Eijk, A.H.C. “The Gospel of Philip and Clement of Alexandria: Gnostic and Ecclesiastical Theology on the Resurrection and Eucharist,” Vigiliae Christianae 25 (1971), 99-100.
[xviii] Origen, op.cit., V, 12.