'Great' Bible Texts…that Really Aren't So Great

Extreme religion in disguise
So, be honest now: How many Christians cheerfully open their doors to Jehovah’s Witnesses who come knocking? It’s not so easy to knock on doors in Manhattan, so it’s common to see these intrepid missionaries at their literature tables in the New York City subway. I have yet to see passers-by interacting with them, so their hit ratio (getting people to hear their pitch) is probably no higher than when they ring doorbells.

The irony, of course, is that Christians who rebuff or ignore Jehovah’s Witnesses are on the same family tree of faith; they share belief in the ancient Jesus cult. It’s just that the JWs are more aggressive about it. And, of course, there are now thousands of variations on the old cult, as Christianity has splintered endlessly. This fragmentation can be traced to endless Christian fighting about theology, but above all to the disagreements in the original source documents, i.e., the gospels and epistles.

But how is it fair to refer to earliest Christianity as a cult? Why in the world would I do that? Cult has such unsavory connotations. Isn’t Christianity far above that? It’s a prestigious, respected world religion—in fact, the largest in the world. But way back in the first decades of the first century, Christianity was a tiny breakaway Jewish sect; it possessed strong cult flavor because it preached that a Galilean peasant preacher had to be killed to atone for human sins, and eating symbols of his flesh and blood were components of ritual.

Moreover, the cult was dead certain that Jesus would soon (not ‘any century now’) descend through the clouds to set up a Kingdom of God on earth reserved for the lucky few (the members of the cult) Everyone else would be killed off; that was Jesus’ view on how it would all unfold. History itself has falsified these weird beliefs…yet the cult endured and flourished. The cult strangeness became orthodoxy.

This is traceable in large part to the earliest documents that promoted the cult. The letters of Paul did a lot to set the superstitions in stone. But after Paul had departed the scene, the gospel writers took on the task of inventing the Jesus story, in which Paul had shown no interest whatever; he wasn’t even aware of a Jesus story. (By the way, we have to wonder: Did Paul, as he was being martyred—so the legend goes—wonder why the hell Jesus never showed up?)

Note that I have chosen the word carefully: inventing. Mark conjured the figure of Jesus that has become so familiar to us. As it turns out, his gospel was pretty good as cult propaganda (Matthew and Luke plagiarized most of it); it was aimed at his target audience to boost loyalty and stress expectations. For us, so many centuries later, Mark fails as a document that we can admire and recommend.

This is another article in my series on each chapter of Mark’s gospel; here we focus on Mark 12. In the Introductory article I explain how Mark got the gospels off on the wrong foot. The article on Chapter 11 is here.

As much as Christians may cherish the gospels as accurate accounts of their Lord—that’s the party line they’ve bought for centuries—these documents are in fact theology. Even many devout scholars know this “secret,” but I’ll let two quotes suffice:

• Charles Guignebert (1933): “It was not the essence of Jesus that interested the authors of our Gospels, it was the essence of Christ, as their faith pictured him. They are exclusively interested, not in reporting what they know, but in proving what they believe.”

• A. N. Wilson (1997): “The Gospels, as much as the other writings of the New Testament, such as Paul’s letters, are first and foremost theology; though they are theology in narrative form. If one had to define them as a literary genre it might be most accurate to term them theological novels.”

Any astute Christian can figure out why the gospels fail as history. Consider how historians work: in A. Scott Berg’s biography of Woodrow Wilson, there are 31 pages of notes and sources: the research that enabled the author to write an accurate account of Wilson. In Helen Langdon’s biography of Caravaggio: 27 pages of notes and sources. In Barbara Tuchman’s history of the first month of World War I, The Guns of August: 50 pages of notes and sources.

If anyone wants to write a biography of Jesus, the pages required to list the sources would be zero. When Berg, Langdon, and Tuchman wrote their books, they had access to archives, letters, diaries, newspaper accounts, and piles of previously written books. A Jesus biographer has none of that at all, and can do no more than cite chapters and verses of the gospels.

The gospels were written from 40 to 100 years after the death of Jesus, and their authors cite no sources whatever (not even John who, drunk on theology, made up a source, in a stab at credibility). Any modern reader is entitled to ask of any episode in the gospels: Where did this story come from? Since there is so much fantasy, superstition, and miracle—pretty standard stuff in religious writings the world over—our level of skepticism and distrust must be very high. “Ah, but the gospels were divinely inspired, so we know they’re true,” is special pleading—circular reasoning grounded in faith—and is taken seriously by no secular historian.

The traditional fallback appeal to “reliable oral tradition based on eyewitness accounts” is little more than wishful thinking; as always, we need evidence—contemporary documentation (such as letters and diaries)—to back that up. Which is precisely what we don’t have.

In fact we do know the ‘sources’ that the gospels writers dug through to find ‘information’ about Jesus: The Old Testament and other ancient writings were thought to contain clues, planted by God, about the son he would someday send. That was how they created the tale of Jesus. See especially David Chumney, Jesus Eclipsed: How Searching the Scriptures Got in the Way of Recounting the Facts; Randel Helms, Gospel Fictions; Dennis MacDonald, The Homeric Epics and the Gospel of Mark.

Mark 12 reflects Mark’s theological agenda—and his concern to coach the cult. In chapters 8, 9, and 10, Jesus predicted his death and resurrection three times—and even then the disciples didn’t get it. (See Robert Conner’s series at exChristian.net, So Just How Dumb Were Jesus’ Disciples?) Now, in the 12th chapter, Mark puts the prediction in parable form, for the benefit of religious bureaucrats at the Jerusalem Temple. In this parable, the owner of a vineyard leased it to tenants before departing ‘to another country.’ Later when he sent servants to collect the profits, the tenants abused, beat and even killed them. Finally the owner sent his son to make the collection, vv. 7-8: “But those tenants said to one another, ‘This is the heir; come, let us kill him, and the inheritance will be ours.’ So they seized him, killed him, and threw him out of the vineyard.”

In the very first verse of Mark’s gospel, he had identified Jesus as the son of God, so his readers would have grasped the significance of the parable. Mark would have us believe that the bureaucrats got it too, v. 12: “When they realized that he had told this parable against them, they wanted to arrest him, but they feared the crowd. So they left him and went away.”

Those who bother to read Bible texts carefully, meticulous, critically, should be curious:

• How does this square with Mark 4:10-12, where we read that Jesus told parables to prevent people from understanding his message.
• For those who want this to be history: what was Mark’s source for this story? Was there a stenographer on hand taking notes? Mark wrote after the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple in 70 CE, so what are the chances that any documentation at all survived? What are the chances that any eyewitnesses still survived?
• Mark indulges in ‘hero exaggeration.’ It is wholly unrealistic that the bureaucrats ‘feared the crowd’ because everyone was in awe of Jesus.

Mark presents his hero getting the better of the religious leaders in the next two reported exchanges, the ‘render to Caesar’ pronouncement, and his encounter with the Sadducees, who posed the hypothetical case of a woman who married seven brothers in succession, when each one in turn had died, v. 23: “In the resurrection whose wife will she be? For the seven had married her.” The Sadducees didn’t believe in the resurrection, so it was a trick question.

Jesus took the bait, as least in the script invented by Mark, who shows off his full-blown cult thinking. Naturally, you tell the religious experts they don’t know what they’re talking about: “Is not this the reason you are wrong, that you know neither the scriptures nor the power of God?” And you display your mastery of things that nobody really knows: “For when they rise from the dead, they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven.”

And you know this how? I suspect that even those Christians who earnestly hope that they’ll make it to heaven don’t think they’ll be ‘raised from the dead’ to get there (although demented Paul assumed that the dead would rise from their graves to meet Jesus in the sky, I Thess. 4:16). Mark/Jesus smacks down the disbelieving Sadducees by ‘proving’ resurrection: Because, once upon a time God claimed, “I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob,” then, case closed—at least Mark/Jesus thought the logic was unassailable—“He is God not of the dead, but of the living.” This matches Mark’s fantasy in chapter 9 that Moses and Elijah showed up on a mountaintop to visit with Jesus.

This response to the Sadducees doesn’t boost confidence that Jesus was a smart guy. It’s not a wise inference about reality; it’s not even clever. The Sadducees seem to have possessed a few critical thinking skills that Jesus lacked. If Christians assume they can glide through the gospels from one great teaching of their Lord to another, these verses are a disappointment. ‘Jesus wisdom' is very much a mixed bag.

As the next section of chapter 12 illustrates. Mark does not give his Jesus a lot of ethical teaching, but in verse 31 we find the ‘second’ great commandment: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” But Mark’s primary concern in the final portion of this chapter is to coach the cult, explain what is expected of the followers. And here we find a demand (it’s called the first commandment) that is a marker of extreme religion:

“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.”

Heart, soul, mind, strength. All. Focused on God. This is not the way even most believers function in the world—nor do they want to—and begs the question of why a self-sufficient god wants or needs unrestrained adoration. But cults thrive when people can be coaxed to this dark side; when they can be roped into zealotry. The reward promised by the Jesus cult was eternal life; but, as is usually the case, there must have been ego satisfaction for the cult leaders, including a propagandist like Mark.

The folks in the pews have been so used to hearing, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, yada, yada, yada,” in sermon and song, seeing it in stained glass and embroidery—well, don’t they just expect that sort of thing from the preacher? So it’s hard to notice just how jarring, how bizarre it really is.

Just as Mark/Jesus put down the Sadducees (“you are wrong…you know neither the scriptures nor the power of God”), near the end of chapter 12 he slams the religious elite, vv. 38-40):

“Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets! They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.”

Religious outsiders have the impulse to condemn the establishment, so we can see why Mark wrote this; but damn, it almost qualifies as a great ethical teaching! Money-grubbing televangelists and preachers who turn prayers into sermons, beware! “They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.”

Mark 12 closes with a story I recall so well from my childhood—but who noticed the bad advice that is subtly conveyed? Jesus pointed out to his disciples a ‘poor widow’ who gave ‘two small copper coins worth about a penny’ to the Temple treasury. She had done something far more praiseworthy than ‘many rich people who put in large sums’—so says Jesus. “For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.”

I suspect Mark is speaking here (Yes, I’m being redundant: there is no way to identify genuine Jesus sayings), citing an example of the kind of total commitment expected from those who signed up to follow Jesus. But what Christian today would admire a destitute widow who gives away ‘everything she has, all she has to live on’ to a church? If Jesus did indeed point with admiration to a widow who gave away her last coins—to the big establishment cult—he failed on the level of practical advice. When I was a kid I assumed that this was a great Bible story, but, No, it fails to qualify.

Christians can’t help themselves, actually. They’ve been exposed all their lives to the Bible hype that it’s God’s Holy Word. Even when they pick their way through it, they tend not to notice how far it falls short. Worship helps spread the fog—is that what incense is for? Set most of Mark 12 to choral music, have the pastor read it solemnly, majestically—and voilà, the scriptural magic is restored, proving that Barbara Tuchman was right when she referred to “that marvelous human capacity to see what you expect to see even if it is not there.”

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 reissued last year by Tellectual Press with a new Foreword by John Loftus.

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