SO MUCH Bad Theology in ONE Bible Chapter

Who’s the culprit? His initials are J.C.

We can be sure that, most of the time, believers descend into a fog of piety when they pick up their Bibles to read the Jesus stories. It’s as if critical thinking is suspended or even cancelled as they reverently plod or skim through the gospels. That has allowed the church to get away with a lot.

Why not try another perspective? For example, that of comparative religion or literature. Consider that the gospels fit in the wide range of fantasy and mythology writings of the ancient world. Maybe they’re not so sacred, after all. I recommend, as an experiment, that every time devout readers come across the name Jesus in the gospels, they should put in another name instead; that might deflate some of the aura of holiness. How about substituting Brian for Jesus? That alternative hero has been proposed by John Cleese, Eric Idle, et al. Their superb use of satire, I am sure, has helped erode the appeal of Christianity (and exposed its silliness).

Christians could breathe a sigh of relief if, in the 10th chapter of Mark’s gospel, an alternate messiah—such as Brian—had all the lines. This is another in my series of articles on each chapter of Mark’s gospel; the Introduction to the series is here. The article on chapter 9 is here.

We read in Mark 10:1 that Jesus taught the crowds that followed him; in fact, here he departed from his main message about the coming Kingdom of God to respond to a question from the Pharisees. Thus in vv. 5-12 we find Jesus’ disastrous pronouncement about divorce. Of course, we can’t fault his belief that the Creator set things up for humans to reproduce: “…from the beginning of creation, God made them male and female. For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh. So they are no longer two, but one flesh.” (vv. 6-8)

But then we come to verse 9: “Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.” Yes, God meant for men and women to get together. But it does not follow at all that God himself has been the matchmaker for every couple ‘since the beginning of creation.’ This idea would undermine the precious concept of free will that theists rely upon so heavily; but even if we allow that couples have been free to marry whom they chose, Jesus seems to be saying here that God then makes that choice irrevocable; it is binding—forever. There is a heavenly tyrant who can’t admit that a mistake has been made.

Indeed, when we consider how many bad marriages have been made for so many bad reasons for so many centuries, then God would have to be at fault for bungling things endlessly: “…what God has joined together.” Followed by the tyranny: “Let no one separate.” How can this not be bad theology? This is one of the consequences of intensely personal theism: God is spying, meddling, controlling. Jesus only made matters worse when he explained privately to his disciples, vv. 11-12: “He said to them, ‘Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her, and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.’” This severe unbending legalism falls far short of being great moral teaching.

But then Mark moves right along to one of the famous feel-good texts about Jesus, which artists have exploited endlessly, vv. 13-14: “People were bringing little children to him in order that he might touch them; and the disciples spoke sternly to them. But when Jesus saw this, he was indignant and said to them, ‘Let the little children come to me, do not stop them, for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs.” The devout folks who love this little episode don’t seem to notice that v. 15 gives away Jesus’ agenda: “Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.”

Cult leaders have known forever that this is a formula for success; they appeal to those who are as credulous as little children. “You will never enter the kingdom unless you receive it as a little child.” Please do not bring skepticism or critical thinking to the message I’m pushing or the product I’m selling. This is blatant exploitation; I fail to see Jesus the great moral teacher here either. Religious bureaucrats of all brands have known forever that they have to pound the brains of kids as early as possible to ensure the survival of their particular brands of nonsense.

The next episode, vv. 17-22, provides insight into why religion works.

In this story of the ‘Rich Young Ruler’—so-called based on vocabulary in Luke’s version—a man asks Jesus what he has to do to ‘inherit eternal life.’ Same old, same old story: People turn to holy men to learn how to get out of dying. Jesus, like countless other religious seers, claims to know. To earn the divine reward, keep ‘the commandments’ (don’t murder, commit adultery, steal, etc.). The man seemed to sense that there must be more to it: “Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.” Christians who also have their eye on the prize, might wince at Jesus’ next suggestion, v. 21, “You lack one thing. Go sell what you own, and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”

Christian theologians know that they have to put the brakes on doing-good-deeds as the way to get to heaven. Deeply indebted to the thought of John’s gospel and the apostle Paul, they know that correct belief is crucial, e.g., Romans 10:9: “…if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” But Jesus is pretty specific here: “…give to the poor and you will have treasure in heaven.” And he elaborated in one of his most famous sayings, v. 25: “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”

The response of the disciples is a bit of a surprise: “They were greatly astounded and said to one another, ‘Then who can be saved?’” After all, they were not of the wealthy class, nor were the crowds that followed Jesus. Why didn’t they say, “Well, I guess we’re in luck”? But Jesus answered with his own non sequitur: “Jesus looked at them and said, ‘For mortals it is impossible, but not for God. For God all things are possible.’” Does this mean that God himself will bend the rules about rich people getting into heaven? When theologians don’t know anything at all about God, such banalities can be passed off as wisdom, “…for God all things as possible.” We have a long list of possible things God has failed to deliver.

But this exchange is a tip-off that the remainder of chapter 10 is about to go steeply downhill. We descend into cult goofiness, and Jesus leads the way.

Far from having to worry about being rich, Peter responds (v. 28), “Look, we have left everything and followed you.” Which prompts one of the most bizarre statements attributed to Jesus (vv.29-30):

“Truly I tell you, 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 this not be the ultimate phony promise? If you give up your house, all your family and your fields for the sake of the cult leader, you’ll get back all of it—ALL of it—a hundred times over, both in this life and the life to come. It’s as if Jesus endorses the grotesque plot of the Book of Job.

Why don’t Christians snap out of it when they read this text? This is Jesus—or Mark who wrote the script—being weird, and it is not great moral teaching. Is it any wonder that (v. 32), “…they were amazed, and those who followed were afraid.” Yes, anyone who raves nonsense can have that impact.

In the next few verses (32-34), Jesus repeats for the third time (see 8:31 and 9:31) his prediction that he will be mocked, abused, and killed in Jerusalem, “and after three days will rise again.” Since the end of Mark’s gospel lacks an account of the resurrected Jesus, perhaps this was the author’s way of driving home the point that this would be the outcome of his theological tract.

It would appear that two of the disciples spotted an opportunity in Jesus’ promise that there would be great abundance in the life to come. James and John, the sons of Zebedee, decided to put in a request (v. 37): “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” Mark has given Jesus a script heavy with cult-code (vv.38-40):

“’You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?’ They replied, ‘We are able.’ Then Jesus said to them, ‘The cup that I drink you will drink, and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized. But to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared.’”

Is it case that the Galilean peasant preacher had succumbed to this delusion, i.e., that God had already worked out the seating arrangements in the new Kingdom of God—and his central place in the scheme? Or is all this the product of Mark’s imagination? Keep in mind the fresh perspective that I recommended at the outset, i.e., looking at the gospels in their context.

Jesus was not alone in his delusions:

“Palestine in the early first century CE was experiencing a rash of messianism. There was an evident clamoring of sects and individuals to announce they had found the messiah. It is therefore no oddity or accident that this is exactly when Christianity arose. It was yet another messiah cult in the midst of a fad for just such cults.

“That it among them would alone survive and spread can therefore be the product of natural selection: so many variations of the same theme were being tried, odds are one of them would by chance be successful, hitting all the right notes and dodging all the right bullets. The lucky winner in that contest just happened to be Christianity.” (Richard Carrier, On the Historicity of Jesus: Why We Might Have Reason to Doubt, p. 67)

Christians sometimes complain, as we tally the list of Bible absurdities, that we’re “taking things out of context.” But they are massively guilty of that themselves when they decline to study the complex history that gave rise to the Jesus myths. Even if there really was a historical Jesus, he is now obscured by many layers of folklore and theology—thanks in large part to Mark’s talent for creative fiction.

After Jesus had dismissed the request for privileged seating (v. 41), “ …when the ten heard this, they began to be angry with James and John.” Jesus took this as a teaching moment: “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you. Whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all.”

Mark the theologian, however, is at work here, and he uses this calm appeal for collegiality as a run-up to one of the classic statements of bad Christian theology (v.45): “For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” This is magical thinking: that a human sacrifice can cancel human sin—at least, that is, the sins of those who believe in the magic. The apostle Paul fine-tuned the magic.

The chapter closes with another fragment of miracle-folklore (vv. 46-52). As Jesus approached Jericho, a blind man named Bartimaeus managed to attract his attention and asked to be healed. “Jesus said to him, ‘Go. Your faith has made you well.’ Immediately he regained his sight and followed him on the way.” Christians are so accustomed to this jargon that the bad theology goes unnoticed—although it has usually been absorbed at some level, and has brought despair in its wake. How many Christians over the centuries have beat themselves up for failing to muster sufficient faith—and suffered accordingly? Bartimaeus’ faith conquered blindness, of all things, so why hasn’t their faith, perhaps nurtured for years, worked as well? Why have they failed to grab God’s attention? “Well, God, you see, works in mysterious ways.” This wears thin with over-repetition, as does “…for God all things are possible.”

My mantra of late has become: Please Christians, read the gospels, carefully, meticulously, critically. It’s not hard to spot the bad theology, the shabby ideas that should be disowned, even if they supposedly come from Jesus. There are a lot of people who do notice them, and not just the embarrassed theologians. The Onion recently published an article titled, “Christ Super Embarrassed About All the Stupid Shit He Said 2,000 Years Ago.” There is a lot of the stupid shit in Mark 10, as a careful, meticulous, critical reading reveals. These texts are no basis for becoming better human beings.

In his book, Outgrowing Religion: Why a Fifth-Generation Southern Baptist Minister Left God for Good, John Compere makes a compelling point: “The myth of Paul Bunyan makes a good story, as does the story of Jesus. But neither tale withstands factual scrutiny or gives us a clue about the meaning of life. For that, we have brains.”

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, has recently been reissued by Tellectual Press, with a new Foreword by John Loftus.

The Cure-for-Christianity Library is here.