“The Bible Is a Self-Destructing Artifact”

The resurrection can be found in the rubble

The appeal of holy books, according to John C. Wathey, is that

…it does not matter what they say. As long as they are perceived as imparting divinely inspired instructions and wisdom, they will evoke in readers the infantile solace and comforting emotions of a small child receiving help and instruction from a parent—the less comprehensible, the better.” (p. 133, The Illusion of God’s Presence: The Biological Origins of Spiritual Longing)

Of course, preachers and priests draw attention to Bible texts that make the faith look good. These texts are read from the pulpit, set to sacred music, and embedded in stained glass—and the Bible itself, in splendid binding, is adored on the altar. None of which means that it is comprehensible—in fact, far too much of defies comprehension, which doesn’t take too much digging to discover. But the laity commonly settle for devotional study of the Bible, hence they are in a category Randel Helms has called “inattentive readers,” those who would be

“…surprised to learn that the Bible is a self-destructing artifact…what inattentive readers call the unity of the Bible is in fact a large, and extremely fragile, cultural fiction…the Bible is a war-zone, and its authors are the combatants.” (p. i, The Bible Against Itself)

Sometimes the inattentive readers may stray from the feel-good texts, and legions of Christian apologists—panicked at the Bible’s self-destructing nature—are charged with helping them keep the faith. There is acute panic especially about the New Testament accounts of the resurrection of Jesus. Most laypeople don’t probe the relevant texts all that closely, but secular thinkers and devout scholars alike have done so. The Jesus resurrection stories—which grew with the telling—were designed to bolster belief and inspire the faithful. The authors had no clue that, centuries later, their accounts would be subjected to close scrutiny. And, it’s hardly a surprise, the accounts fall apart.

John Loftus’ essay, “The Resurrection of Jesus Never Took Place,” in his new anthology, The Case Against Miracles, presents a neat summary of the problems. It is highly readable homework for curious Christians who might want to learn why there is so much skepticism—and what all the fuss is about. What fuss? Well, just check out the 80-page—yes, 80 page—bibliography in Michael J. Alter’s 2015 book, The Resurrection: A Critical Inquiry, itself 743 pages of text. Alter discusses 120 contradictions in the stories about the last days of Jesus.

Loftus’ 27-page essay allows us to cut to the chase.

Where to start? Well, how about the gospel accounts of the resurrection? But Bible readers will hunt in vain, because there are no descriptions of the resurrection. None. How can that be? No one was there to see it happen? After all, we’re told that Jesus predicted that he would rise. How come nobody said, “We don’t want to miss this!”? Loftus quotes Frank Kiekeben, who points out what should have happened:

“There would have been quite a few people hanging around the tomb waiting to see what would happen. Even the disciples would most likely have come out of hiding for a chance to see the wondrous event—the single most important one of their entire lives…[but] no one went to see if he would come out as he supposedly predicted. Not a single person could be bothered to do so.” (p. 506)

Somehow the stories of the event—well, its aftermath—were created, and Loftus notes the deficiencies: “…everything we read in the Gospels,” he says, “depends entirely on authors who were not there and did not see any of it for themselves…” (p. 494, his emphasis)

But it turns out that the gospels are not the place to start. The first ever written mention of a risen Christ is by the apostle Paul, who had never met Jesus. This is I Corinthians 15:3-8:

“For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me.”

About half of Loftus’ essay (pp. 498-511) is a close, detailed analysis of this text, and all of the problems that it presents—and there are so many! Christians cherish this text especially, but they don’t notice how much it fails to align with what we read in the gospels.

It certainly is strange that, in all of Paul’s letters, he does not mention an empty tomb; Loftus comments, “…let’s note what we don’t find here. There are no angels or women eyewitnesses, nor is Joseph of Arimathea one of them, people who would all be important to mention in an over-all case for the resurrection of Jesus.” (p. 499)

Yes, the I Corinthian text mentions that Jesus was buried, but it is alarming—as far as apologists are concerned—that the empty tomb didn’t figure at all in Paul’s thinking. This is one of the key paragraphs in the Loftus essay:

“…Paul simply says that Christ was buried. He doesn’t tell us where Jesus was buried because he didn’t know. So much for the empty tomb! It would’ve been a great addition to the apologist’s case had Paul mentioned it. For if there was a verifiable empty tomb it would need an explanation. Yet, Paul failed to mention the most important fact used by Christian apologists. Apologists today stress there was early testimony of the tomb, that Jesus was laid in it, and that he was raised out of it. Paul didn’t think much of this apologetic because he didn’t need it for his faith. Paul’s Christianity probably didn’t need a bodily resurrection.” (p. 501)

Let that sink in.

Christians who love their gospel resurrection stories—with the focus on the empty tomb, Jesus getting up and walking out—would do well to study 1 Corinthians 15:35-53. Here is the first guy to write about the resurrection, denying that it had anything to do with a physical body. But that wouldn’t do when the stories of Jesus were created later; as Loftus puts it, “The Gospel writers didn’t help much…the resurrection body of Jesus was a very strange one.” (p. 502)

“In later gospels Jesus’ body was one that could be touched (Luke 24:39, John 20:27) and could eat fish (Luke 24:42-43). But it could also pass through walls (John 20:19, 26), or appear out of thin air (Luke 24:36), then disappear at will (Luke 24:31, 51). What kind of body was this? Who really knows?” (pp. 502-503)

Unwilling to settle for a spiritual body, the gospel writers made a muddle of it all: Loftus nails the truth: “Of course, there is no measurable difference between a spiritual body and no body at all.” (p. 503) He states the blunt fact: “…Paul’s understanding of Jesus’ resurrection didn’t require a resurrected body… independent from Paul and later in time, the author of Mark invented the story of the empty tomb.” (p. 503)

Spiritual body? Just exactly what is that supposed to be? It is hardly a surprise that Paul came up with this idea; making things up is what theologians do! He pulled this out of his imagination, or from the abundant mythological traditions of his time. He bragged that his knowledge of Jesus came from his visions; yes, in his hallucinations he saw the dead man Jesus alive again. So voilà! …there must be a spiritual body. Go ahead, try to make sense of it.

There was also a practical aspect to it as well. Paul would have known that rotting flesh is dreadful to behold. He assured his followers that their dead relatives would emerge from their graves to meet Jesus descending through the clouds. Hence a body that was put into the ground wouldn’t do. His solution is found in one of his most dramatic texts (1 Corinthians 15:50-53):

“What I am saying, brothers is this: flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable. Listen, I will tell you a mystery! We will not all die, but we will all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. For this perishable body must put on imperishability, and this mortal body must put on immortality.”

Why would anyone take this seriously?

Note as well Paul’s puzzling reference to Jesus’ appearance “to the twelve.” What? Loftus: “Something is definitely wrong since the twelve would have included Judas, who was dead by the time of this appearance by Jesus, and they had not yet picked a successor to replace him. The best understanding is that the person who betrayed Jesus was not one of the twelve apostles, which goes to the heart of the trustworthiness of the testimonial evidence of the gospels.” (p. 507) It could very well be that the Judas story had not been invented yet either.

The Bible is a self-destructing artifact.

Loftus offers a brief tour as well of the contradictions and inconsistencies in the four gospel accounts of Easter morning and its aftermath; these alone should make anyone suspicious. Yes, Christians, please read them carefully—side by side—instead of settling for snippets intoned piously from the pulpit. Come to grips with the poor quality of this material, with Loftus’ warning in mind: “One would think the gospel testimonies should be reasonable and consistent if we are to believe a resurrection miracle took place. But they aren’t, by a long shot.” (p. 512)

The most vital dogma of the Christian faith—that Jesus rose and thus assures eternal life for those who believe—hinges on this flimsy story. Apologists have their work cut out for them, and boy, have they risen to the challenge, producing a vast library of works to demonstrate the credibility of the resurrection stories. But why not put their ingenuity to work defending so many other resurrection stories as well? Starting, obviously, with those other resurrections that happened on Easter weekend: the dead who emerged from their tombs to wander around Jerusalem. (Matthew 27:52-53)

But this is not hard to figure out: we’re dealing with a stock motif in ancient religion. It was once believed that resurrecting vegetation gods brought new growth in the spring. And Richard Carrier notes that

“…we can confirm several other examples of clearly pre-Christian dying-and-rising gods well known across the Roman Empire:
the savior cult of the resurrected Zalmoxis (of Thracian origin) is clearly attested in Herodotus centuries before Christianity; the imperial cult of the resurrected Romulus is likewise attested in several pre-Christian authors; and the Egyptian savior cult of the resurrected Osiris is likewise undeniably ancient.” (pp. 170-171, On the Historicity of Jesus: Why We Might Have Reason for Doubt)

So why aren’t Christian apologists hard at work trying to prove that the Zalmoxis, Romulus, and Osiris resurrections took place too? Because the apologists are devotees of the ancient Jesus mystery cult. They admit it; they’re proud of it, so their cult has to be the best of all!

But the New Testament texts fail; they don’t stand up to scrutiny: the Bible is a self-destructing artifact. It helps make the case for disbelief, or as Loftus puts it:

“It would seem, if our eternal destiny were at stake, god should’ve made the evidence rock solid for those of us who hear about it centuries later. But there isn’t a god so he couldn’t do this, because it’s not the case Jesus rose from the dead. What we have is a nearly airtight case against this faith-based miracle claim. Jesus died on the cross. He did not bodily arise from the grave. His body rotted away.” (pp. 517-518)

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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