Made-to-Order Stories for the Jesus Cult

But consistency was not a virtue
Every missionary who has ever lived has been inspired by the famous ‘Great Commission,’ spoken by the resurrected Jesus in Matthew 28:19-20: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.” Of course, we have a right to be skeptical that a dead man came back to life to give orders, but there are other reasons as well for suspecting that Jesus—even while he was alive—didn’t say this.

Since this gospel was probably written a good fifty years after the death of Jesus, Matthew probably wrote to motivate his readers at the time—and we know that he was an expert at making things up. (See “Who the Hell Hired Matthew to Write a Gospel?”) Moreover his portrayal of Jesus doesn’t hang together very well. In chapter 10:5-6, Jesus sends the disciples out on a preaching mission, with this caveat: “Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” In 15:24, when Jesus declines to help a Syrophoenician woman, he repeats this claim: “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”

Did he change his mind after the resurrection? Or had the compulsion to ‘make disciples of all nations’ come along by Matthew’s time, certainly under the impact of Paul’s zeal as well. This is a measure of the new cult’s hubris and delusions of grandeur. This never seems to dissipate; it is displayed by today’s fanatical sects, e.g. the Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses—“we gotta convert the world”…or at least rescue the remnant.

In fact, the text in Matthew 15 is the author’s reworking of a story found in Mark 7, which is the focus of this article, one of a series on each chapter of Mark’s gospel. The Introduction to the series, “Getting the Gospels Off on the Wrong Foot,” is here. The article on Chapter 6, “Jesus and His Team of Traveling Exorcists,” is here.

The description of Jesus’ encounter with the Syrophoenician woman is found in Mark 7:24-30. She fell down at his feet and begged him to heal her demon-possessed daughter, whom she had left at home. He put her off: “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” Kudos to this woman—for not taking shit from anyone; she replied: “Lord, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” Jesus relented: “‘For saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter.’ So she went home, found the child lying on the bed, and the demon gone.”

We can see from this episode that Mark Chapter 7 doesn’t break the pattern of superstition and magical thinking we’ve found all along in this gospel, i.e., belief in demons and healing by…well, by what this time? Telepathy? Other healings have been done by voice activation and touching. And surely Jesus loses points for comparing the woman and her daughter to dogs. Of course, Christian apologists come to his defense. In his 1965 commentary on Mark, C. F. D. Moule noted that Jesus, “deliberately concentrated, in his lifetime, on the Jews alone.” But, even so, “…can we imagine Jesus refusing anyone in need?” But that’s exactly what he had done initially. Moule’s use of the word “imagine” brings to mind Bart Ehrman’s suggestion that Christians worship the “ideal Jesus of their imagination.” His Jesus couldn’t have done anything bad.

Moule also tries to put himself into the situation, as if it actually happened. “…something depends on the tone of voice in which he made the protest and the look in his eye at the time.” So…maybe Jesus was just kidding with her? It is so common to take the Jesus stories at face value, but how do we know where the author got his information, forty years after the fact? What were his sources? There we draw a blank, and it’s no good assuming that memories of a real event are preserved here. Perhaps Mark’s point in including this episode was to illustrate Jesus’ magical power over demons, even if they are far away; his initial refusal to help a Gentile was minimized.

We should analyze these stories at face value because that’s how most Christians want to understand them; and in so doing, we can expose the absurdities and contradictions. But then we move on, as most serious thinkers do, to grasp that the gospel writers were story-inventors; they created episodes to advance their theological agendas. They no more qualify as historians than did the apostle Paul, who bragged in Galatians 1 that everything he knew about Jesus Christ came from his visions; he didn’t rely at all on reports derived from human origins, i.e., people who had actually known Jesus. By the time the gospels were written—well after Paul—it would have been much harder to dig up ‘real’ information about Jesus.

As scholar A. N. Wilson has remarked, they wrote theological novels.

The literature on the gospels is vast beyond imagining, but these are good introductions to the gospel-formation process:

• David Chumney, Jesus Eclipsed: How Searching the Scriptures Got in the Way of Recounting the Facts
• Randel Helms, Gospel Fictions
• Dennis R. MacDonald, The Homeric Epics and the Gospel of Mark

The gospel authors wrote to address the needs, concerns, and worries of the early Jesus cult. The bulk of Mark 7, vv. 1 -23, cast in the format of a debate between Jesus and Pharisees, is designed to make the case that some of the Jewish traditions were of no value and could be ignored. There was a struggle for self-definition as a breakaway Jewish sect.

At the opening of Chapter 7 we read that the Pharisees were surprised that some of Jesus’ disciples ate with ‘defiled’ hands, i.e., they didn’t wash their hands before eating, thus breaking with the ‘traditions of the elders.’ This practice derived, not from concern for germs, but from fear of ‘defilement,’ i.e., contact with Gentiles or food purchased at a market, rendered one ‘unclean.’ Washing could take care of that.

But Jesus didn’t buy the idea. He quoted a text from Isaiah (29:13) to put the Pharisees in their place, and, in the middle of the chapter, he explains privately to the disciples that a person is defiled by what comes “from within, from the human heart.’ He lists “…fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.” I have noted the dearth of great moral teaching in Mark, but in this text Jesus comes close, although there is hardly anything profound in this routine list of sins.

This text was no doubt intended to help the new cult answer the question, “How are we Jewish, but not Jewish?” Certainly they called upon the Old Testament to build the case that Jesus was part of God’s plan all along; how could it not be Jewish to some degree since Jesus had been a Jew? But Paul had already rejected the law as the key to salvation, especially the requirement for circumcision. So it is no surprise that food regulations—the rules about ‘clean and unclean’ foods—could be rejected as well. Peter’s vision in Act 10—a sheet of animals acceptable as food lowered from heaven—was aimed at this goal, and here in Mark 7, Jesus points out that food can’t defile a person; verse 19 includes the comment, “Thus he declared all foods clean.”

Perhaps the most puzzling section of Chapter 7 is vv. 9-13, in which Jesus mentions an oath by which people can get out of supporting their parents: “But you say that if anyone tells father or mother, ‘Whatever support you might have had from me is Corban’ (that is, an offering to God)—then you no longer permit doing anything for a father or mother…” Anything that would let people escape this obligation would, in effect, “makes void the word of God.” We can’t fault this as a moral teaching, but elsewhere Jesus is far less noble, and indeed falls far short of being a great moral teacher.

In Matthew 12:46-50 he rebuffed his mother and brothers who had come to speak with him: “‘Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?’ And pointing to his disciples, he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.’” In Mark 10, when Peter tells Jesus that the disciples have given up everything to follow him—which is alarming in itself—Jesus’ response is weird:

“…there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the good news, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age—houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields, with persecutions—and in the age to come eternal life.”

How can anyone be given back mothers, children and brothers a hundredfold? But the most alarming text of all, which has caused so much anguish to apologists and pious translators, is Luke 14:26: Jesus insists that hatred of family is a requirement for following him.

These pronouncements are indicative of unhealthy, dysfunctional cult fanaticism, and we get more of it in Mark’s abhorrent chapter 13. There, in his prediction of the agonies that his followers must endure in the run-up to the apocalypse, Jesus says, “ Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death…” (Mark 13:12). The coming of the Kingdom of God would not be a happy event for those who are not among the elect. No wonder preachers and apologists have to work so hard to clean up their Jesus, to manufacture the ‘ideal Jesus of their imagination.’

The concluding section of Chapter 7, vv. 32-37, is another episode in the Chronicles of Jesus the Magician. In this scrap of folklore, Jesus heals a man who is deaf and has a speech impediment. He put his fingers into the man’s ears, applied his own spit to the man’s tongue, looked to the sky and sighed. “And immediately his ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly.” The crowd went wild: “They were astounded beyond measure, saying, ‘He has done everything well; he even makes the deaf to hear and the mute to speak.’” Mark was playing to his crowd, of course, reinforcing the superman status of the cult hero.

As John Loftus has so often advised, apportion belief to evidence, and this story is evidence for nothing whatever that actually happened in the life of Jesus. We can do little more than appreciate the skill of the storyteller. And beware of confirmation bias: It’s the feel-good Jesus we see when he heals the deaf man, and this helps build the case for the “ideal Jesus of the imagination.”

But this handling of scripture is dishonest. It’s a better idea instead to put all the good-Jesus stories in one column, then put all the bad-Jesus stories in another—taking care not to be swayed by apologists who work so hard to rationalize the negatives. Carefully weigh the data in both columns; this can be painful—depending on how much you’ve been taught to love your Jesus—but it takes readers one step closer to apportioning belief to evidence.

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 in 2016 by Tellectual Press.

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