How to Tell If You’re a Real Christian

The fast-track answer in Mark’s gospel
New Yorkers in a rush tend to be impatient with strolling tourists gawking at the skyscrapers…“Welcome to New York, now go home.” No, we don’t say it. But then there was the tourist I saw recently, whose t-shirt was a testimony: “You‘all Need Jesus.” So many things I wanted to say to him…but didn’t. I wanted to bang by head against the nearest wall…but didn’t.

Christians especially seem be clueless about the problem of Jesus. The glaring negatives about Jesus are on full view in the gospels. Is this the Jesus we need? Which Jesus are we supposed to believe?

Why do I suspect that the guy in the t-shirt hasn’t actually read the Bible? For well over a thousand years the church got away with promoting the ‘heavenly savior Jesus’—one third of the lofty trinity—because the laity didn’t have access to the Bible. Before scripture was translated into the vernacular, pious folks learned about their Lord through magnificent art in the churches—1,001 depictions of the Virgin and Child—ritual, ceremony, sacred music, and stained glass.

But those media don’t offer a way to get to the nitty-gritty, down and dirty Jesus who said some pretty bad things. The church kept it all pure and simple, as Richard Carrier has pointed out: “What Jesus did while on earth was irrelevant to what he could do for you now that he was exalted to the highest throne in heaven, and it was the heavenly Jesus that was sold to the masses, not some dead carpenter from Galilee.” (The End of Christianity, John W. Loftus, editor)

Two more episodes in my series of Flash Podcasts, Things We Wish Jesus Hadn’t Said, have been posted on my YouTube channel. Under five minutes each. Episode 8 and Episode 9.

Close attention to the Bible might have been a corrective, but even after the Bible made its way into the hands of ordinary believers—and the Gideons took up the crusade to get copies into every hotel room in the world (the count now being more than a billion copies)—it probably remains the most neglected “popular” book in the world. Is the Bible in most homes read any more frequently than the Gideon Bibles in hotel rooms?

Oh, sure, every pastor in every congregation leads a Bible study class—maybe not so much in Catholic parishes—but, chances are, only hard core Christians attend, and get devotionally motivated lessons from clergy committed to protecting the truth, as their brand of Christianity defines it.

So, back to the guy in the t-shirt.

Would he have any idea what I’m driving at if I asked, “Sir, what’s the big problem with Mark, chapter 16?” Because it is in this chapter that we find a startling Jesus quote. What words ‘from the Lord’ should count most of all? Surely his counsel and advice after his resurrection would be highly prized, right? After all, by then he was one step closer to being part of the Holy Trinity.

This article is the conclusion of my series of articles on each chapter of Mark’s gospel. The Introductory article is here. The one on chapter 15 is here.

Let’s consider the run-up story to the startling Jesus quote.

On what we now celebrate as Easter morning, three women went to the Tomb: Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome, to anoint the body of Jesus with spices. This has to be more than a little baffling. John’s gospel tells us that Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus had taken care of the burial of Jesus; the latter had brought “…a mixture of myrrh and aloes, weighing about a hundred pounds. They took the body of Jesus and wrapped it with the spices in linen cloths, according to the burial custom of the Jews.” These three ladies were a little late.

They were surprised that the very large stone had already been rolled away from the tomb, and a young man dressed in a white robe was sitting inside. He told them not to be alarmed, but delivered the news that Jesus has been raised. He instructed them to go tell Peter and the disciples. “So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.” (v. 8)

However, we read in verse 9 that Jesus appeared to Mary Magdalene, then “…she went out and told those who had been with him, while they were mourning and weeping. But when they heard that he was alive and had been seen by her, they would not believe it.” Note: they would not believe.

Next we hear that… “…after this he appeared in another form to two of them, as they were walking into the country. And they went back and told the rest, but they did not believe them.” Note: they did not believe them. Note also that Luke may have based his Road to Emmaus story on this text.

Jesus got really annoyed: “Later he appeared to the eleven themselves as they were sitting at the table; and he upbraided them for their lack of faith and stubbornness, because they had not believed those who saw him after he had risen.” Note: they had not believed.

We might even say that their failure to believe is itself unbelievable: because three times in this gospel Jesus had predicted that he would rise from the dead (8:31, 9:31 and 10:34). In Matthew 10 he instructs the disciples to go preach and raise the dead; in John they witnessed the raising of Lazarus. Yet, here they are, playing dumb and disbelieving. There’s been a lot of comment about the portrayal of the disciples as a dense bunch, and this seems to confirm it.

Robert Conner has not spared words: “Yet in spite of all these predictions and all this alleged first-hand experience, the apostles remain the Twelve Stooges, thicker than two short planks, the dumbest yokels in all of yokeldom—they can’t understand what Jesus means by ‘rising from the dead’ (Mark 9:32) even after the Master calls them aside and Jesusplains it all. (Mark 10:32)” (Questioning the Resurrection).

After scolding the disciples, Jesus showed a change of heart about their mission. “Go into all the world and proclaim the gospel to the whole creation.” In Matthew 10 he had forbid them to preach to the Gentiles, and in Mark 7 Jesus had to be talked into healing the daughter of a Gentile (her mother was persistent).

But now we come to the startling pronouncement by Jesus, the resurrected Jesus, saying how you can tell who’s a real Christian, vv. 16-18:

“The one who believes and is baptized will be saved; but the one who does not believe will be condemned. And these signs will accompany those who believe: by using my name

1. they will cast out demons;
2. they will speak in new tongues;
3. they will pick up snakes in their hands,
4. and if they drink any deadly thing, it will not hurt them;
5. they will lay their hands on the sick, and they will recover.”

Could we try to find out how that’s working out for Christians these days? Maybe we should walk into churches on Sunday morning and ask for a show of hands: So, how many of you have cast out demons this week? Or made the rounds of local hospitals to lay hands on the sick? Maybe we could ask the members of the Westboro Baptist Church to drink some poison…

Right after pronouncing this list of the Five Great Things You’ll Be Able to Do, Jesus made his departure: “So then the Lord Jesus, after he had spoken to them, was taken up into heaven and sat down at the right hand of God.” Do a quick read-through of verses 9-20 of chapter 16: does it seem like forty days have passed? Not at all, but in the first chapter of Acts we’re told that Jesus ascended to heaven after forty days.

Now, again, back to the guy in the t-shirt, and my question: Would he have any idea what I’m driving at if I asked, “Sir, what’s the big problem with Mark, chapter 16?” The confusion that is obvious from a careful reading of this chapter isn’t the big problem. This bit of information is not longer much of a secret: Verses 9-20 are a forgery. They were added to the gospel, probably a long time after Mark finished his Jesus story. For those who want us to believe that the Bible is trustworthy, this is a big problem.

Mark had ended the gospel with 16:8: “So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.” There was incentive to tamper with the text because—well, because everyone wanted to know what happened next.

The forged, faked, fabricated ending—however you want to put it—is an embarrassment.

• This forged longer ending wasn’t even noticed until very early manuscripts that lack it were discovered. So for many centuries Christians were none the wiser.

• Did God inspire this tacked-on section too? And this is just one example—a big one, to be sure—of tampering with the text of the Bible. Did God inspire all the tampering…as in, oops, I forgot to add that…?

• Worst of all, of course, is that this startling resurrected-Jesus quote is silly religion and bad theology. If Jesus had some parting advice, wouldn’t you think he’d tell Christians to excel at forgiveness, compassion, and generosity? Instead we find this mash-up of superstition and magical thinking.

• To the credit of some modern translators, they move this Long Ending (and a Short Ending that was invented too), to a footnote. But they practice deceit as well, by saying, “Other ancient authorities add…” How does a forger deserve to be called an authority? How about this instead? “Person or persons unknown tampered with Mark’s gospel by adding these verses.”

• Of course, the forged ending, which emerged from someone’s imagination—and a talent for bad theology—only begs the question: why would any of Mark’s ‘real’ gospel be considered reliable, if you’re expecting it to be history? Read through it carefully, chapter by chapter, section by section, and it’s not hard at all to spot the fantasy, magical thinking, superstition, and miracle folklore. The other gospel writers built their stories on Mark, hence the title of my Introductory article for this series, “Getting the Gospels Off on the Wrong Foot.” Bible scholars have known for a long time that picking out bits and pieces of history in Mark is dicey; a reliable methodology for doing so has not been discovered. Indeed, it’s probably a fool’s errand.

For a thorough analysis of Mark 16:2-20, see the 81-page essay in Richard Carrier’s Hitler Homer Bible Christ: The Historical Papers of Richard Carrier 1995-2013.

As I bring this series of articles on Mark to a close, let me mention again an important work that sheds light on Mark’s methods, Dennis MacDonald’s The Homeric Epics and the Gospel of Mark (2000). But now especially, the 2018 book by R. G. Price, Deciphering the Gospels Proves Jesus Never Existed.

In his Chapter 1, “Deciphering the Gospel Called Mark,” pay close attention to Price’s chart on pp. 3-5, the texts Mark used from the Hebrew scriptures to build his story. His intention was not history at all:

• “That the Gospel of Mark was written during or shortly after the First Jewish-Roman War that spanned from 67 to 73CE is now widely accepted by modern scholars…” p. 2

Strange, isn’t it, that the Jesus story wasn’t written down right away as soon as he was gone? Or maybe, since the Christian cult expected Jesus to end history soon, why bother? But what if Jesus hadn’t been real at all?

Forty years later the story was created for a reason:

• “My view, however,” Price continues, “is that the motivating factor that drove the author to write the story that we now call the Gospel of Mark was the destruction of the temple and the war itself. Jesus is just a literary device used in an allegorical framework to tell a story about how the Jews brought destruction upon themselves. That’s what the story is really about. The motivation behind the writing the story was to comment on the war; Jesus is a device used for the telling of that tale.” p. 2 (emphasis added)

• “The writer of the story called the Gospel of Mark created a very clever multilayered narrative that he intended for his audience to be able to decipher and understand. The writer made extensive use of literary allusions as a vital part of the narrative, in such a way that the intention of the work was for people to recognize the literary illusions and look them up in order to understand the story. Apparently, however, this isn’t what happened. What happened was that many people believed the story to be literally true and only recognized a relatively small portion of the literary allusions.” p. 5

Is this origin of Mark too speculative for you? Well, check out Price’s chart of scriptural allusions to see what Mark was up to, and recall his unrestrained use of fantasy, magical thinking, superstition, and miracle folklore.

And so it has come to pass that, the more the gospels have been studied by secular historians with no emotional investment in Jesus, the more the documents can be understood as literary, theological creations. We have been led to this conclusion by even devout Bible scholars themselves, who have hit so many brick walls in their quest for the historical Jesus. Maybe they’re the ones who should wear the t-shirt, “You’all need Jesus.” The sad news for them is that, Yes, they need him, but they can’t even find him.

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.