Bible Blunders & Bad Theology, Part 7

Train Wreck Bible Verses

The Bible is a dangerous book, actually—from the standpoint of preserving the faith. Conservative scholar Ben Witherington once made a stunning confession, concerning Paul’s Letter to the Romans, i.e., that “…the goal of understanding this formidable discourse is not reached for a considerable period of time.” Wait a minute: Isn’t God’s Word supposed to the clear, its meaning obvious? Perhaps the Gideons have been on a fool’s errand for so many decades, giving out Bibles for free—more than a billion so far—on the assumption that the Word of God is accessible; it’s right there, just read it and “get it.” Witherington knows it’s not that simple, and the problem goes much deeper than that.


Indeed so much of the Bible is hard to understand, but there are many texts that go beyond that: they are embarrassingly bad, defying logic and morality. The Gideons might be thankful that most of those billion Bibles have not been read carefully. Priests and preachers might feel the same way, because New Testament is a minefield. It offers a sampling of ancient superstitions, so foreign actually to how most folks today—including Christians—think about the world. The church has had a 2,000-year head start in selling the Bible as “the good book,” and billions of people have bought the hype. But the minefield is still there, and faith stands little chance if people take a close look. 


Of course, there are the feel-good Bible verses that have become so familiar—and that fuel the hype. But let’s review some of the texts that should prompt folks to head for the exit. 


The gospel of Mark is a good place to start. Do Christians really want the Jesus depicted here? In an article I posted here in January 2018, “Getting the Gospels Off on the Wrong Foot,” I said this: “If you accept the Jesus of Mark’s gospel, you are well on the way to full-throttle crazy religion. No slick excuses offered by priests and pastors—none of their pious posturing about ‘our Lord and Savior’—can change that fact.” 


In the fifth chapter, for example, Jesus encounters a mentally ill man, and by a magic spell he transfers the guy’s demons into pigs. Most of us today wouldn’t agree that mental illness is caused by demons, or that a holy man could send them into pigs. That’s a sample of the superstition we find in Mark. Yes, we can chalk this up the naiveté of ancient thinking, and it’s too bad the Word of God didn’t rise above that.


But we find something even more troubling in Mark 4, an alarming text that should alert Christians that something is amiss. After Jesus has told the Parable of the Sower, 



“When he was alone, those who were around him along with the twelve asked him about the parables. And he said to them, ‘To you has been given the mystery of the kingdom of God, but for those outside, everything comes in parables; in order that ‘they may indeed look, but not perceive, and may indeed listen, but not understand; so that they may not turn again and be forgiven.’” (Mark 4:10-12)

Devout scholars have been wringing their hands about this text for a long time. How can it be that Jesus tells parables to prevent people from repenting and being forgiven? On what level does that make sense? But here we seem to have an example of Mark’s agenda slipping into full view. He was writing for those inside the cult, who were privileged to know the secrets of salvation: “To you has been given the mystery of the kingdom of God…” In the broader context of the Synoptic Gospels, parables are usually told to drive home important points (e.g., the Good Samaritan, compassion and generosity), but Mark wanted to let those in the cult know that they were in on a secret, and his parables usually relate to the kingdom. 

This is a case where Christians have to face the fact that the gospel writers simply made up Jesus-script as they saw fit. All of the good Jesus-script, and all of the bad Jesus-script too: there is no way to verify anything that the authors ascribed to Jesus.

But Christians really have to study to pick up on something else, Mark’s loose quotation of Isaiah 6:10: “…so that they may not look with their eyes, and listen with their ears, and comprehend with their minds, and turn and be healed.” In Isaiah 6, the prophet wants to know how long the people of Israel will be prevented from repenting, and the vengeful Yahweh is explicit: 


“Until cities lie waste without inhabitant, and houses without people, and the land is utterly desolate; until the Lord sends everyone far away, and vast is the emptiness in the midst of the land. Even if a tenth part remain in it, it will be burned again...” (Isaiah 6:11-13)


Mark seems to have been influenced by this nasty theology, which explodes into full view in his horrendous chapter 13. These are texts that undermine the common Christian assumption that the New Testament displays a loving God.  

Coaching the Cult

Far from it. Mark 4:10-12 is one of many texts that express the extremism and severity that cults usually preach—and these are train wreck verses for thoughtful Christians. Sometimes the cult-centric texts sound nice, for example, Mark 12:30, a command from Jesus: “…you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.” How can a loving God require this level of devotion and subservience? Divine narcissism is fueled by the certainty that worshippers love at this all, all, all, all level. 

But what’s the point? Indeed most Christians—at least those who don’t choose monastic seclusion—have families, jobs, hobbies and pastimes that require major commitments of their hearts, souls, minds, and strength; they are not as fanatically obsessed with God as Jesus commands in Mark 12:30. Very few take this text seriously.


And it gets worse. Mark 12:30 is a preamble to train wreck verses in Matthew 10; when Christians read these, why don’t they cancel their memberships?

“Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.  For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household.” (verses 34-36)

And then Jesus the cult fanatic—Matthew’s version—puts the frosting on the cake: “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me.”  (verses 37-38)

Luke, however, wasn’t satisfied with even this. He added hate to the formula: “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.” (14:26) 


Not only hatred of family, but hatred of life itself.


What’s going on here? Christians who idealize Jesus, who have been taught to do so from their earliest memories of enforced religion, certainly must be stumped by these texts, no matter how hard translators try to disguise the meaning, no matter how much apologists engage in endless spinning. Devout folks—especially those who ask what Jesus would do—may run to their pastors for assurance that there’s a “way out,” that somehow these texts can’t mean what they seem to mean. 


The plain truth, however, is that the gospel writers were not embarrassed at all by these texts—for them, they’re not blunders. These propagandists were trying to preserve the early Jesus cult; divided loyalties were not acceptable: “You have to be with us a hundred percent.” Those outside the cult were out of luck, had no claim on salvation. Hence to the man who told Jesus he had to go home to bury his father—before he could sign on to be a disciple—Jesus replied, with no patience: “Follow me, and let the dead bury their own dead.” (Matthew 8:22)


Moreover, those who turned their backs on the cult’s message were doomed. In Matthew 10 (again), we read that Jesus sent his disciples out to preach, going from town to town—and too bad for those turned their backs on these door-to-door missionaries: “If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, shake off the dust from your feet as you leave that house or town. Truly I tell you, it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah on the day of judgment than for that town.” (Matthew 10:14-15) 


Try to imagine a modern parallel: as you close your door on annoying Mormons or Jehovah’s Witnesses—whose messages are of no interest—you hear them yelling, “Just you wait, someday your house will burn down!” Sound legit, right? For the gospel writers, old Yahweh was still in charge; with the train wreck verses, it gets harder and harder to make the case for the God of love.


For quite a while now I have used the term Ancient Jesus Mystery Cult to describe Christianity. Indeed the early followers of Jesus were in competition with other cults in the first century, others that celebrated resurrected gods and knew secret formulas for achieving eternal life. Sacred meals were sometimes part of the package, and the Jesus cult was not to be outdone, especially in the theology imagined by the author of John’s gospel. 


So we come to the final train wreck verses to examine here—perhaps a highpoint of bad theology. The sacred meal proposed by John included Jesus’ body parts. After all, according to John, Jesus had been present at creation; he was “one with the father,” so how could his body not have magical properties? John invented this Jesus script:


“Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me.”  (John 6:53-57)


This is an extreme—and disgusting—example of magical thinking; making it a “sacrament” adds to the disgrace. When Christians are asked to pretend—to simulate—drinking blood, that’s the time to head for the exit!


Randel Helms has famously said that the Bible is a self-destructive artifact (The Bible Against Itself, p. i). Yes, we can point to feel-good verses, but they are war with the nasty, scary verses, and can’t rescue Christianity, which is disastrously dragged down by so many train wreck verses. Far too much bad theology has been preserved in the New Testament. 


A brief video comment on Bible Blunder & Bad Theology, 7, is here.


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.


The Cure-for-Christianity Library©, now with more than 400 titles, is here. A brief video explanation of the Library is here.