Bible Blunders & Bad Theology, Part 2

Were the gospel writers incompetent or dishonest?

The beginning and end of the Jesus story should prompt suspicion; in fact they jeopardize the entire Jesus enterprise—because of what they don’t tell us.

The Beginning

Why don’t we know more about young Jesus? The earliest New Testament author, the apostle Paul, betrays no interest in the ministry and teachings of Jesus, let alone where he came from.

In the first gospel written, Mark, the hero pops out of nowhere as an adult to be baptized. Matthew and Luke sensed the need for backstory and added the beloved birth narratives. These, on close examination, make no sense whatever, and cannot be reconciled with each other; secular historians do not take them seriously. Luke offers a wunderkind invention about Jesus, as a 12-year old, in the Jerusalem Temple—a feeble scrap indeed that stands out because it is so unlikely. John’s gospel offers no help either; it claims that Jesus was present at the creation of the Cosmos, but provides no details about Jesus coming of age in the real world.

And the end of the Jesus story? That, in fact, is a catastrophic, as we’ll see.

But what a strange, deficient beginning. Wouldn’t you think if God had inspired the Bible account about his perfect son, we’d have a better picture of what happened? Former Baptist preacher Tim Sledge’s curiosity was piqued by that one isolated story about 12-year old Jesus in the Temple:

“That’s the last report on anything Jesus did or said until he began his ministry around the age of 30. The temple visit at age 12 marks the start of 18 years of silence about the life of the only person who—according to Christianity—ever managed to avoid committing even one sinful thought or act.

“Why do we know absolutely nothing about the world’s only perfect life between the ages of 13 and 29?

“For decades I wasn’t troubled by this information gap. ‘God has his reasons’ is a good multi-purpose tool for handling hard questions related to faith. But today, I see the Bible’s silence on these years of Jesus’s life as a glaring and troubling omission.” (pp. 54-55, Four Disturbing Questions with One Simple Answer: Breaking the Spell of Christian Belief)

Surely the wonderful early life of Jesus would be worth knowing about:

“…what if we had the details of Jesus’s life in his twenties? How did he transition from adolescence to adulthood? How did he build strong, meaningful friendships? How did he deal with sexual temptation? How did he practice integrity in his work—presumably as a carpenter?” (p. 56)

Sledge proposes a thought experiment:

“Imagine you’ve never heard about Jesus, and someone tells you a story about the only perfectly sinless human to ever walk the earth. Then at some point, this individual casually remarks that the only information about this person’s life beyond childhood covers a period of one to three years at the end of his life.

“Wouldn’t you immediately question why there wasn’t more evidence to validate that this individual did in fact live a life in which no fault could be found?

“Wouldn’t you wonder why the God empowering this perfect life failed to ensure that someone wrote about events from its every year?

“And wouldn’t you wonder if the real reason for this loud silence was that the details of this life at an earlier stage needed to be concealed to sell the story of a perfect life?” (pp. 56-57)

Of course, scholars who question the historicity of Jesus—he was mythical from the get-go, there were no teenage years—have no trouble explaining this absence of information. Even for believers, however, this gap in Jesus knowledge should be troubling. It’s surely a major Bible Blunder that the gospel writers didn’t bother to tell the story of Jesus before he showed up for baptism. Maybe just call it a sin of omission, but at the conclusion of the Jesus story, we find a much bigger sin.

The End

There’s actually a cluster of Bible Blunders as the gospel writers wrapped up their story, e.g., no one actually saw Jesus come alive, in contrast to the Lazarus story (John 11), when everyone saw him walk out of the tomb; the four gospel accounts of the empty tomb are contradictory and can’t be reconciled; Matthew added a Halloween touch, i.e., many dead people came alive in their tombs when Jesus died, then walked around Jerusalem on Easter morning; the risen Jesus appeared only to close associates. Why not show up at Pilate’s house—or appear to Caesar? That would have grabbed Roman headlines.

But the biggest blunder of the gospel writers is the story of Jesus’ ascension to heaven. It cannot be stressed enough that this story alone falsifies Christianity—hence I tend to mention it a lot.

Once Jesus had come alive again—so the story goes—one big problem has to be faced: what to do with the newly alive body? Well, what else, for these ancient writers, but to send Jesus into the sky:

“…as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. While he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. They said, ‘Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.’” (Acts 1:9-11)

What are the chances? Christians who accept the naiveté of this story retreat to a metaphoric interpretation: it’s meant to symbolize Jesus’ close relationship with God the father. Yes, they admit, we can be 100% sure that the body of Jesus never left planet Earth. No, Jesus is not hovering, even now, above our biosphere, awaiting reentry at a time known only to God. But these honest Christians then must give some account of what happened to the newly alive body of Jesus—if they believe the resurrection is not a metaphor, i.e., that he really rose from the dead.

I guess nobody has a problem with Lazarus dying again; his return to life was nice while it lasted. And all those dead people who came alive to tour Jerusalem on Eastern morning? Presumably they headed back to their tombs to resume being dead. So, if you really believe that Jesus resurrected on Easter morning—but was permanently stuck here on this planet, he too must have died again. The what-to-do-with-the-body problem is thus a killer for Christianity.

What did happen to the body? The New Testament has not been honest. Can we call this a cover-up? It sure looks like it, although it’s a hard call: dead heroes floating up through the clouds is a mark of religious fantasy literature. Maybe the original audience was filled with awe, but we know it’s make-believe. The implication is this: Jesus didn’t, after all, come back to life; that’s make-believe too. Without the Ascension, you can’t have the Resurrection—unless you’re okay with Jesus dying again.

But the New Testament authors would certainly not have been okay with Jesus dying again. They had their story line, which could not have included a grave with a headstone, “Here Lies Jesus of Nazareth.” Nothing can be more obvious: the gospels haven’t told the truth; they have withheld information about the end of Jesus, just as information about his youth is missing.

The resurrection is bedrock doctrine, however. How to save it?—given the problem of a body hanging around awaiting a second death. Well, more blunders ensued. Was it the real body, the one that had been entombed, that was revived? Was a corpse resuscitated? Maybe it was just a spiritual event, as the apostle Paul seemed to think. This is what he wrote in I Corinthians 15:44 & 51-53:

“It is sown a physical body, it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a physical body, there is also a spiritual body… Listen, I will tell you a mystery! We will not all die, 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.”

Paul, who was so focused on the resurrection of Jesus, never mentions the empty tomb story in his letters. Maybe he hadn’t heard the story—or it hadn’t been invented yet; the gospels came decades later. But he might have dismissed the idea that a dead body came back to life and walked out of a tomb. He was convinced there was an alternate reality: a spiritual body. Of course, there was a lot of nonsense bouncing around in his head: what the hell is a spiritual body? Paul excelled at theobabble.

The gospel authors blundered as well. They knew what would appeal to their audience. The newly alive Jesus was the physical body wounded on the cross, enough for Doubting Thomas to poke his finger in the sword wound (John 20). In Luke 24, the resurrected Jesus was hungry: “…he said to them, ‘Have you anything here to eat?’ They gave him a piece of broiled fish, and he took it and ate in their presence.” Yet when Jesus met his followers on the road to Emmaus, they didn’t recognize him. Only later, while having dinner, did they realize who he was, then—poof!—he vanished into thin air. Nor did Mary Magdalene recognize Jesus on Easter morning; she mistook him for the gardener. Robert Conner has written a careful analysis of the resurrection stories, Apparitions of Jesus: The Resurrection as Ghost Story. It’s no wonder we can’t make sense of them. They derive from folklore.

And then there’s the bad theology. Jesus died, the corpse came back to life—this is surely what most of the laity believe happened—only to die again a few days or weeks later, because no, the body didn’t disappear into the sky. But because he came back to life, all the people who believe it happened win eternal life. How could this possibly work? This is bad theology because it is full-blown magical thinking. Many ancient theologians used the eternal life gimmick to win followers to their cults, and this is the Christian variation on the theme.

Bad theology wins because curiosity is put to sleep. It doesn’t take all that much curiosity to look carefully, critically, at both the beginning and the end of Jesus story. The four gospels don’t hang together well, which makes the blunders easy to spot. These stories don’t make sense. Apologists work so hard to get them to make sense.

To clear up all this confusion, a big dose of motivation is required as well: there are so many hundreds of religions—just within Christianity there are countless brands—Is mine the true one? Priests and preaches specialize in putting the curiosity to sleep. A little determined Bible study would make it harder for them to get away with it.

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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