The Biggest Bible Embarrassment of All?

The author who said too much 

There are so many Bible episodes that could be in the running for biggest embarrassment. Certainly the story of Noah has to be in the Top Ten. God is so annoyed by human sin he decides to kill everyone on earth except one family—even most of the animals have to die. How many millions of toddlers and babies were drowned? It’s sad that Bible writers thought this was good theology. Who needs a genocidal god with extreme anger management issues? But—there’s a way out: the Noah story didn’t happen, of course. It’s folklore, borrowed from other ancient folklore.



Then there’s Mark 4:11-12, in which Jesus explains to his disciples that he teaches in parables to prevent people from repenting and being forgiven. That makes no sense whatever, especially since some of the parables convey great moral lessons (e.g., the Good Samaritan). Chalk this Jesus-script up to some weird theological agenda of Mark. Luke 14:26 is overwhelmingly awful; Jesus says you have to hate your family—even your own life—to be one of his disciples. We suspect that Luke invented this Jesus-script to warn off potential converts to the Jesus cult who had divided loyalties.

The authors of these three scripture samples were anonymous. Genesis was written by unknown theologians, which is the case as well for the four gospels. But a major portion of the New Testament was written by an author whom we know for sure, the apostle Paul. Scholars have been able to figure out that several of the letters attributed to Paul are forgeries, but several have been identified as genuine. And that’s the problem.


Paul thought that the world would end soon, and gave little thought to his letters having lasting impact. Alas, they were elevated to the status of scripture, and destined for adoration. Considered word of God, every syllable he wrote has been analyzed endlessly: God’s meaning has be there; in 1939 scholar Christopher Dodd effused that Paul’s Letter to the Romans “is the first great work of Christian theology.”  Woe to Christians if that is the case. Paul’s letters provide abundant evidence of deranged, magical thinking and bad theology.

That’s a big embarrassment.

I suspect most Christians need a crash course in Paul. His letters go largely unread because they’re not easy to read, much less to understand. Conservative theologian Ben Witherington III made a dangerous admission about Paul’s Letter to the Romans: “…the goal of understanding this formidable discourse is not reached for a considerable period of time.” Wow. Aren’t we supposed to be able to pick up the Bible and get the message?  


A good crash course in Paul is provided by Robert Conner’s essay, “Paul’s Christianity,” in John W. Loftus’ anthology, The Case Against Miracles. What a calamity that the church got stuck with Paul’s Christianity. This man never met Jesus, and kept his distance from those who had known him—in fact, he bragged he didn’t learn about Jesus from any human sources. Yet, here he is to this day, at center stage in the Christian story. 


Conner describes what a strange, fluid world prevailed in the earliest Christian era:


“We should be completely clear that when Paul wrote and preached there were no “gospels” as currently understood—Mark, the first gospel composed, was not written until well after Paul, James, and Peter had died. At that early stage there is no evidence that “the gospel” was anything other than an individual’s oral version of the meaning of Jesus’ life; there were as yet no authoritative “New Testament” gospels waiting on bookshelves to be consulted, no “proof texts” that could be cited to bolster an argument. The “gospel” was whatever a preacher said it was…” (p. 536)


Sounds like a free-for-all, doesn’t it? Conner quotes Barrie Wilson (How Jesus Became Christian, 2009), that Paul’s version of events “owed its origin…not to the historical Jesus who was a teacher and Messiah claimant, but to Paul’s personal experience of a mystical Christ.” (p. 536)


Folks who believe that Jesus still lives don’t question Paul’s claim that the risen Jesus spoke to him in visions; to the rest of us, however, this sounds like Paul hallucinated conversations with a dead man. Conner is correct:


“The skeptic might ask what makes Paul’s private revelations from Jesus any more trustworthy than the revelations given Zarathushtra by Vohu Manah, or Muhammad’s revelations from the angel Gabriel, or Moroni’s private revelations to Joseph Smith…After all, by the time of Paul, spirits had been whispering secrets to mediums for millennia…” (p. 540)


Paul resented the other mediums and preachers:


“As Paul’s own letters make clear, there were competing, contradictory ‘gospels’ being preached in the first house churches—Paul complains that some of the Galatians had turned to ‘a different gospel.’ [Galatians 1:6] Paul did not mean a different written gospel…but a different  preaching of Jesus’ message, an interpretation that often formed the basis of competing factions: ‘I follow Apollos,’ or ‘I follow Cephas,’ or ‘I follow Paul’” [I Corinthians 1:12]. (pp. 536-537)


Can we go along with Paul’s certainty that Apollos and Cephas didn’t share his privilege of genuine séances with Jesus? Christians who are curious—and suspicious about information derived from spiritual/mystical trances—are right to wonder, What’s going on here? How did Paul grab so much attention? 


Conner speaks of the historical context:


“While the Romans slaughtered, enslaved, and scattered the Jewish populace in Christianity’s homeland during the First Jewish-Roman War, the new cult, profoundly changed in character, progressed apace among Gentiles. As a lasting result of this change in fortune, the New Testament canon, finalized in the 3rd and 4th centuries, over-represented the importance of Paul among his first century rivals…” (pp. 537-538). Conner cites the observation of John G. Gager (Kingdom and Community: The Social World of Early Christianity, 1975): “…because he figures so prominently in the New Testament, Paul’s significance in early Christian history has tended to be grossly overrated.” (p. 538)


But the suspicion that Paul is grossly overrated is based as well on what he wrote; truly, he said too much. Based on his mystical experience, he had become obsessed with Christ—or maybe more correctly, possessed by Christ. This allowed him to lecture the Galatians, “And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires” (5:24). 


Did he really have such a firm grip himself? He gushed his anguish when he wrote to the Roman congregation; who talks like this to people you’ve not yet met?—it sure sounds like he had not crucified the flesh:


“I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree that the law is good. But in fact it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me. For I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me.” (Romans 7:15-20)


How could sin dwell within him if he belonged to Christ? Maybe he was just having a bad day when he wrote to the letter to the Romans. Or…maybe he needed meds. We suspect that he wasn’t “right in the head,” let alone a stable spiritual genius. 


In fact, scholars and researchers have speculated a lot about what was wrong with Paul. In the first few pages of his essay, Conner offers a helpful survey of opinions. He acknowledges that trying to psychoanalyze someone from the ancient past is risky, but Paul wrote so much about himself; important clues about his state of mind seem to be there. 


“Based on sheer probability,” Conner asks, “who bears the greater burden of proof, the Christian apologist who claims as a historical fact that Jesus repeatedly appeared and spoke to Paul from beyond the grave or the skeptic who points out that Paul’s self reporting coheres with known symptoms of neurological disorders and that at least one pagan [Festus in Acts 26:24] as well as some in his Christian audience considered Paul to be out of his mind?” (p. 531)


On page 525 of the essay, see especially footnote 35: “A growing body of literature examines the potential role of seizure and other disorders in the generation of transcendent experience,” with five articles listed. 


Conner adds, “Whether attributable to complex seizures or other mechanisms of psychosis, Paul’s self-reports do not inspire confidence in the reality of his experiences regardless of how real his close encounters to a religious kind seemed to him” (p. 525).


We know that Paul was stuck on ideas that were wrong, as Conner notes:


“The intransigence of Paul’s belief is well documented—perhaps the most notable example is the persistence of his conviction of an imminent Parousia, despite the failure of Jesus to return as predicted. Given the psychological implications of his writings, his declaration,


‘I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels not rulers, neither things present or things to come, or powers, or height or depth, or anything created will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord’  


can be read as an example of the suppression of countervailing evidence…” (p. 526)


As we have seen, Paul’s certainties were based on his visions—there were no written gospels to consult, there’s no evidence he picked up on supposed oral traditions circulating about Jesus—so where did he turn for evidence outside his visions? Well, as we know, theologians make things up: Paul was sure God had planted clues/predictions about Jesus in the Old Testament—as assumption that the later gospel writers embraced with gusto. “…like thousands of Christians in centuries to follow,” Conner notes, “it would appear that Paul was basically rummaging around in the Old Testament in search of texts that could be construed as supporting his fantasies” (p. 528). 


Despite feel-good texts that can be found in Paul’s letters—those read from pulpits—Christians who endure a crash course on Paul, i.e., by reading his letters, will have no trouble making lists of his wacky ideas, and wince at his distressing penchant for magical thinking: No, believing that a man rose from the dead is not the secret formula for winning eternal life. Paul was certain this mystery had been disclosed to him by the Jesus of his visions. 


In a couple of pages in his essay, by the way, Conner discusses the possible impact on Paul of the mystery cults. “Tarsus, Paul’s native city, was a center of Mithraic and other mystery cults and the term mystery  (mustērion), secret knowledge available only to religious initiates, is virtually confined to the writings of Paul and the forgeries produced in his name” (p. 541).


Many Christians, if they bothered to read his letters, might end up agreeing that Paul is “grossly overrated.” Why not skip Paul and get back to Jesus? But the Jesus of the gospels is burdened with problems as well, since the Galilean peasant preacher behind the stories is obscured by so much by folklore and fantasy; the gospel writers who created Jesus-script were not kind to him. As I pointed out in my presentation to the Atheist eConference on 5 September, Things We Wish Jesus Hadn’t Said, I reread the gospels in preparation for my next book and ended up with an Excel table of 259 bad/mediocre/alarming Jesus quotes. So don’t be so quick to rush from Paul to Jesus. There’s too much bad theology in the gospels as well.


So what’s a Christian to do? Why not put the Bible on the same shelf with other ancient mythologies—just let it go? There are far better things to do in life than chasing after deeply flawed Holy Heroes. Former pastor John Compere points a way forward (Outgrowing Religion, 2016): “The myth of Paul Bunyan makes a good story, as does the story of Jesus. But neither tale withstands factual scrutiny or gives us a clue about the meaning of life. For that, we have brains.”



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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