Matthew Enhances the Cult Playbook

His disservice to Christianity

What does devotion to the Ancient Jesus Mystery Cult look like today? As is clear from comments made on this blog a few days ago by one of the cult devotees, it still embraces magical thinking in its refusal to accept death:

“For a Christian death has been done away with. There is no more death only LIFE. So if you'd like to characterize Christianity as a cult, at least be accurate. It is a LIFE cult…Jesus is the proof. He is not dead. And he is the demonstration that life does not end in death…show me his grave. Show me his bones. Show me any evidence or testimony from the past that he is dead. No? The fact is it is all the other way. All the testimony is that he lives. That which he gave as evidence of his living presence, the effectiveness of the gospel and the miracles attending the preaching, is visible today. There are no contemporary witnesses to death being the end for Jesus, while on the other hand there are multiple witnesses to the resurrection of Jesus and to his continued life.”

“All the testimony is that he lives.” By this he means the stories preserved by the four gospel authors. But preserved isn’t really the right word. The gospels were written by propagandists for the cult—and no, that is not too harsh. They wrote to promote the faith and it didn’t matter that they crafted stories entirely detached from history; this was not detected until, many centuries later, scholars trained in historical method figured it out.

Not a single one of the “testimonies” about the risen still-alive Jesus can be verified by contemporaneous documentation, e.g., letters, diaries, transcriptions written soon after the events. The stories match what we find in ancient folklore; see, for example, Robert Conner’s book, Apparitions of Jesus: The Resurrection as Ghost Story.

The gospels were written decades after the death of Jesus, and one of the scandals in NT scholarship is that no one has been able to devise a methodology—one that would satisfy secular historians—for identifying whatever historical tidbits there might be, scattered in the gospel texts. While the debate goes on about whether Jesus existed, this is simply a fact: verifiable information about Jesus does not exist. That billions of Christians are so much in love with the gospels—because without them they would have to face death realistically—doesn’t alter this fact.

David Oliver Smith, in his book, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and Paul, notes that

“…Markan Priority means that the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke do not represent three independent views of the events in the life of Jesus of Nazareth, it is only one view, Mark’s, editorially amended to present different theological and Christological points of view.”

Close study of each of the gospels allows us to see their different approaches, e.g., nothing at all like Luke 1-3 is found in the other gospels; the latter’s theology exploded in his depiction of annunciation and virgin birth. John would have none of it, but pushed the idea that his cult hero—who had started out as a Galilean peasant preacher—had been present at Creation.

It seems likely that Matthew was the first author to lean heavily on Mark’s account, and he made his own unique contributions to the Jesus cult playbook. He wasn’t satisfied with Mark “adoptionist” theology, i.e. that Jesus presented himself for baptism by John the Baptist (“for the remission of sins”) and when he emerged from the waters, a voice from heaven announced that Jesus was the Son of God. Matthew was uneasy with this—his virgin birth account is a clue that his Christology was different—and he invented Jesus script, suggesting that the baptism had been a formality, for public consumption (Matthew 3:14-15):

“John would have prevented him, saying, ‘I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?’ But Jesus answered him, ‘Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.’ Then he consented.”

But the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness was Matthew’s big chance to score theological points for the cult. This was all that Mark had to say about the temptation (1:14-15):

“And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.”

Matthew expanded these two verses into eleven by adding changes of scenery and a dialogue between Jesus and the devil. Since there were no witnesses recording the conversation, it’s tough for apologists to argue that this is history. Matthew wanted to portray his cult hero getting the best of God’s enemy, and the Jesus script that he created is basic cult formula. In response to the devil’s challenge to turn stones into bread, Jesus responds:

“One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.”

And of course, all cults are prepared to inform their followers that they have inside knowledge of those words—in the case of the gospels, the Jesus-script is provided for guidance.

Matthew missed his calling by about two thousand years: he would have done well writing superheroes for DC Comics. He has Superman Devil transporting Jesus from the desert to Jerusalem—to the pinnacle of the Temple, no less. “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down”—and God’s angels will come to the rescue.

But Jesus is against “putting the Lord your God to the test”—a nice sentiment, which is undermined by Jesus himself elsewhere, e.g., Matthew 21:22, “And whatever you ask in prayer, you will receive, if you have faith.” Many devout Christians know how often God has failed this test (but won’t admit it).

Superman Devil finally takes Jesus to “a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor.” All this could belong to Jesus if he switched sides and joined forces with the devil. But Jesus would have none of it: “Away with you, Satan! for it is written, Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.”

This is yet another flaw in personal monotheism, that a god requires service and subservience from those who follow. This is amplified in other texts that command love of the narcissistic deity; Matthew copied this verse from Mark: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” (Matthew 22:37 = Mark 12:30) This expression of cult fanaticism (our god wants ALL, ALL, ALL) is touted by preachers and ends up etched in stained glass, but the laity don’t live it. Their hearts, souls, and minds are devoted to jobs, families, hobbies, sports—getting on with their daily lives.

In other words, such cult fanaticism is left to super pious folks who retire to monastic life in hopes of coming closer to an all-consuming devotion to God. We really can’t fault Matthew (and Luke too, by the way), for copying Mark 12:30. It resonates with folks who have been taught from infancy that love of God is a good thing. Preachers can get away with advocating this kind of piety.

But Matthew did a major disservice to Christianity by copying Mark’s horrible chapter 13, thus anchoring grotesque theology permanently in the Jesus Cult Playbook. Note the gist of this dystopian view of the anticipated Kingdom of God (Matthew 24 = Mark 13):

• The cult hero (the Son of Man = Jesus) will arrive from the sky, and will send out angels to gather the elect (i.e., those who have joined the cult). Most of humanity will be left out:

• “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.” (Mark 13:19 = Matthew 24:21)

• Not quite satisfied with this grim forecast, Matthew added this detail (24:37-39, which has a parallel in Luke): “For as the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark, and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away, so too will be the coming of the Son of Man.”

So humankind—devoted to eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage—will be swept away when Jesus arrives from heaven.

The coming of the Son of Man will be a time of terror (Matthew 24:16-20):

“…then those in Judea must flee to the mountains; the one on the housetop must not go down to take what is in the house; the one in the field must not turn back to get a coat. Woe to those who are pregnant and to those who are nursing infants in those days! Pray that your flight may not be in winter or on a sabbath.”

And the early Jesus cult was so sure this was just around the corner, based on this Jesus script (Matthew 24:34-35 = Mark 13:30-31):

“Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.”

Naturally, the cult hero was so grand that his words would outlast creation.

All of this would have played well in attracting people to the cult. Who wouldn’t want protection from being swept away “as in the days of Noah”? The fact that Matthew wrote his gospel a couple of generations after the promise that all these things would happen before Jesus’ generation passed away didn’t seem to sink in—or didn’t matter. Cults then—as cults today—were not hobbled by critical thinking.

There are texts that promote naiveté, especially Matthew 18:2-4:

“He called a child, whom he put among them, and said, ‘Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.’”

This calls to mind the apostle Paul’s contempt for those who might be tempted to think, 1 Corinthians 1:20-21:

“Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe.”

You don’t get points for thinking; salvation is for those who believe. This has been the refrain of cults forever, and Matthew provides threatening Jesus script, aimed at anyone who would question or undermine childlike—i.e., childish—faith (Matthew 18:6):

“If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were fastened around your neck and you were drowned in the depth of the sea.”

Add a butcher’s knife to the millstone; of course this is metaphor—but couldn’t a less bloody one have been chosen? Matthew 18:8-9:

“If your hand or your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to enter life maimed or lame than to have two hands or two feet and to be thrown into the eternal fire. And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to enter life with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into the hell of fire.”

Thrown into the eternal fire.
• “…suffering, such as has not been from the beginning of the creation that God created…”
• “as the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Man…”
• “…Woe to those who are pregnant and to those who are nursing infants in those days!”

Please don’t get bent out of shape when I call Christianity the Ancient Jesus Mystery Cult. This is barbaric, grotesque theology that emerged from overheated imaginations, based on no evidence whatever. And, of course, the failure of the Son of Man to put in an appearance has falsified this deranged theology; yet there are many Christians today—those who score low on the empathy scale—who embrace it enthusiastically. The New Testament is their Cult Playbook. They love this revenge theology: they can savor God getting even with the unlucky folks outside the cult, and are assured that escape from death is their reward.

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 published by Tellectual Press in 2016. It was reissued in 2018 with a new Foreword by John Loftus.

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