If the Bible Had a Sewer...

…that’s where this chapter should be floating

One of the reasons that the Bible cannot be taken seriously as a word from God—from any god, let alone a benevolent, caring creator—is that it includes so much trash. Christian apologists know this very well; they’ve written thousands of books, and preached countless sermons, making excuses, doing their best to sweep the trash under the rug. Well, maybe not sermons so much: preachers don’t like to draw attention to alarming Bible embarrassments.

It’s easy to avoid the landmines in Leviticus or the Book of Revelation: just ignore them. Not too many laypeople—outside of diehard evangelical Bible fanatics—bother with the less-trafficked books. Stand outside any church as people are filing out and ask, “Don’t you just love the prophet Ezekiel?” Yet, despite lack of interest about what’s actually in it, they dutifully carry their Bibles; what could surpass this holy artifact?

And what could be holier than the gospels? Yet, here we are: there are so many embarrassments in the Jesus story. How can Christians not shudder? Mark 13 is a disturbing reality check: This is a glimpse of early Christianity, and it should snap believers to attention: “OMG, what is this?”

This is another article in my series on Mark’s gospel; Introductory article, “Getting the Gospels Off on the Wrong Foot,” in here. My analysis of Chapter 12 is here.

My advice, my plea, to Christians is, “Read the Bible carefully, meticulously, critically.” Especially Mark 13; read it with as little faith-bias as possible. For a moment look behind the Word-of-God faƧade: what’s really going on here? Appreciate that Mark was addressing his target market, the first century Jesus cult. If Christians flinch at my use of the word cult, Mark 13 is Exhibit A in making the case for that.

When was Mark’s gospel written? The first two verses of chapter 13 offer a clue:

As he came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, “Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!” Then Jesus asked him, “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.”

Like first-time tourists to the big city, the disciples are in awe, “What large buildings!” But the point of this text is to show that the cult hero Jesus was prescient; he knew that the temple would be destroyed. New Testament scholars, however, consider this a tip-off that Mark’s gospel was written after 70 CE, when the Temple had indeed been leveled by the Romans. Mark was fully aware that this had already happened, and put this script into Jesus’ mouth.

Of course the disciples were curious—at least the clique of insiders, Peter, James, John and Andrew; they asked him privately: “Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign that all these things are about to be accomplished?” And at this point we begin to move into cult dramatics:

“When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed. This must take place, but the end is still to come. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be earthquakes in various places. There will be famines. This is but the beginning of the birth pangs.” (vv. 7-8)

Hold that thought: The end is still to come…the beginnings of the birth pangs.

In his 2001 book Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium, Bart Ehrman helped attentive readers see a major theme of the synoptic gospels: Jesus—certainly the Jesus presented in Mark’s gospel—was obsessed with the idea that a Kingdom of God would arrive soon, with himself a key figure.

Which, of course, never happened.

Regrettably, it is impossible to know if Jesus himself—a Galilean peasant preacher—thought this, OR if this was the agenda of Mark, a consummate cult propagandist. There is no contemporary documentation whatever for anything that Jesus said or did, e.g., letters, diaries, transcripts, court records. If we could just get Christians to grasp this fact. Everything comes to us through the gospel filters; it’s like trying to get a clear view through stained or frosted glass. Theology distorts everything—it might even have invented Jesus—and in the case of Mark 13, cult weirdness dominates.

At one of my book-promotion speeches, an audience member called me to task for making a distinction between good and bad theology. “It’s all bad,” said he, “because it’s all fake.” But the case can be made that there is good theology: that which encourages us to be better people, e.g., the Parable of the Good Samaritan. Bad theology, on the other hand, stimulates in-group fanaticism: “We’re the remnant that will be saved,” and “God will get even with the folks who don’t know our secrets.” This bad theology revels at the prospect of widespread suffering and destruction: wars, earthquakes, famines.

The coming terror, associated with the arrival of the Kingdom, would be a test for the members of the Jesus cult, hence Mark stressed loyalty, vv.12-13: “Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death; and you will be hated by all because of my name. But the one who endures to the end will be saved.” This is a classic cult formula.

This Jesus, the strident apocalyptic prophet, does not align well with the image of the Wonderful Savior holding a lamb or dangling children on his knee. But it gets worse, v. 14: “But when you see the desolating sacrilege set up where it ought not to be (let the reader understand), then those in Judea must flee to the mountains…” Mark has been big on Jesus keeping secrets—in chapter 4 he has Jesus declare that he taught in parables to fool people—and once again his cult hero resorts to code:

• “When you see the desolating sacrifice…” Just what is that? Mark here is quoting scraps of apocalyptic prediction from the Book of Daniel (11:31 & 12:11); but Mark probably had something specific in mind, perhaps Roman shrines or standards that, when he wrote, had been erected at the site of the Temple. What a horror that would have been for devout Jews. It would a sign that the End Times were near, that God’s patience had worn thin: The end is still to come …the beginnings of the birth pangs.

• This verse is also a sign that Bible translators can be daft. What is the context of v. 14? Jesus is having a private talk with his disciples, so we can be 100 per cent certain that Jesus would not have said, “Let the reader understand.” Yet, in my Bible these words are printed in red—the pious imprimatur of the translators that these are the very words of Jesus. Does one in a thousand devout Bible students stop to reflect: “Wait a minute, that can’t be right”? Mark is inventing script for Jesus in this gospel-novel, so he drops this hint that the readers ought to know what desolating sacrifice meant. It’s just as possible too that a later copyist added the words let the reader understand. The holy Bible wasn’t tamper-proof.

“What a friend we have in Jesus.” Really? Jesus the apocalyptic prophet continues, after his warning to flee to the mountains, vv. 17-20:

“Woe to those who are pregnant and to those who are nursing infants in those days! Pray that it may not be in winter. For in those days there will be suffering, such as has not been from the beginning of the creation that God created until now, no, and never will be. And if the Lord had not cut short those days, no one would be saved; but for the sake of the elect, whom he chose, he has cut short those days.”

Christians who pray every Sunday, “Thy kingdom come…” should ponder this carefully. When it comes “…there will be suffering, such as has not been from the beginning of the creation that God created until now.” Is that what you bargained for in being a Christian? The elect, of course, will be exempt. This is gloating, and the fierce prophet continues, vv. 24-27:

“But in those days, after that suffering, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken. Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in clouds’ with great power and glory. Then he will send out the angels, and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.”

Please try to put faith-bias aside and consider: if you heard these words from a pulpit-pounding TV evangelist or frenzied street preacher with a megaphone, you’d mutter, “What a crackpot!” But Mark presents this text as the words of Jesus. So, crackpot words now, but what about in the context of first century thought? Maybe not so much, because Jewish thinkers were struggling mightily to figure out why God hadn’t yet rescued his ‘chosen people’—and one solution was intensified longing for a messiah.

I have often quoted these words of Richard Carrier, because they are crucial for understanding Christian origins:

“Palestine in the early first century CE was experiencing a rash of messianism. There was an evident clamoring of sects and individuals to announce that 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 on 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 for Doubt, p. 67)

As was the case with the apostle Paul, Mark’s Jesus wasn’t thinking of an event that might be delayed for centuries. Paul was panicked to gather the remnant now, and Jesus saw fulfillment in the short term; he was addressing the guys right in front of him (vv.29-30):

“…when you see these things taking place, you know that it is near, at the very gates. Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place.”

“…you do not know when the time will come. It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his slaves in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch. Therefore, keep awake—for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.” (vv. 33-37)

These are not the words of a man (either Jesus or Mark) who expected history to keep rolling along for centuries. I recently spotted a Christian meme, quoting Jesus: “Ready or not, I’m coming back.” In the wake of horrendous suffering since Jesus and Paul walked the earth, I’d say we’ve been ready for a long time. Just how many ‘wars and rumors of wars, earthquakes, famines’ will it take to get God’s attention? He’s heard that Christian pleading for hundreds of years, “Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done.” So what’s he waiting for?

Mark 13 has been falsified—clearly, abundantly, unequivocally falsified—by history and the human condition, unredeemed for millennia now by ‘messiah magic.’ There are Christians who expect that Jesus might still show up. They worship the irrelevant deity of the New Testament, yes, that god, The Supreme Procrastinator.

We might think, “How quaint!” or “How pathetic!” But Mark 13 remains a dangerous text. Evangelicals banish the thought that anything in the Bible could be wrong. They somehow manage to overlook that this prophecy had an expiration date (“this generation shall not pass away”). Moreover these modern fanatics want to help engineer the frightful Kingdom of God; they champion reckless politicians who might provoke the apocalypse. They want those ‘wars and rumors of war’ (the nuclear option seems appropriate for the end times), so that the remnant, the elect (themselves, of course) can finally meet Jesus.

This foolish, wrong-headed first-century theology might get us all killed.

In my introductory article in this series I wrote: “If you accept the Jesus of Mark’s gospel, you are well on the way to full-throttle crazy religion…Mark 13 is an example of religion gone off rails…” Jesus has been hyped so relentlessly by the church that the folks in the pews appear unwilling, maybe even unable, to come to terms with the glaring negatives about Jesus in full view in the gospels. How can any reasonably intelligent person look at Mark 13 and not say, “Wow, this is nuts”?

Mark’s dreary apocalypticism has failed the test of time: he was wrong, Jesus was wrong, and Paul, who followed the same playbook, was wrong. John Loftus has called it correctly with his essay, “At Best Jesus Was a Failed Apocalyptic Prophet.” (Chapter 12 in The Christian Delusion: Why Faith Fails)

Armed with a measure of curiosity and the courage to doubt—both of which terrify church bureaucrats—ordinary pew-sitters could see that Mark 13 should be dumped in the sewer. And many professional Bible apologists, if they could get away with it, would probably help hose it down the drain.

There are many other parts of the Bible—much more trash—that should be floating along the bottom as well. See Dan Barker’s, God: The Most Unpleasant Character in All Fiction.

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.

The Cure-for-Christianity Library© is here.