Theology Inflation and the Disappearance of Jesus

The Gospels are a big part of the problem

[This is the text of my presentation to the eConference on The Historical Jesus held 24-25 July 2021, sponsored by the Global Center for Religious Research.]


Yesterday we heard John W. Loftus’ presentation, “The Jesus We Find in the Gospels Never Existed.” [Some of the highlights here.] In it he mentioned the skepticism that would greet any golfer who bragged that he just made 18 holes-in-one in a row, and had flown like superman from one hole to the next. No one would believe him. That’s not how the world works. Yet many of the people who would laugh off such bragging accept fantasy stories in the gospels: Jesus healing blindness using spit and mud, feeding thousands with a few scraps of bread and fish, raising the dead, changing water into wine. 


Loftus’ point is that this Jesus in the gospels certainly didn’t exist—no matter if there was a real Jesus. How did we end up with the exaggerated, fantasy gospel-Jesus?



Theology inflation spoiled history 


We might suspect that Jesus Christ was born, not in Bethlehem of a virgin teenager, but in the hallucination-fired imagination of the apostle Paul. Since Paul was the first person to write extensively about Jesus Christ, but neglected to say much at all about Jesus of Nazareth, we are entitled to wonder how the Jesus story got its start. 


Thanks to Paul’s dramatic conversion—described three times in the Book of Acts, but not in his own letters—he is a standout superhero of the early Christian faith. His missionary zeal was unmatched, and seven of his authentic letters ended up in the New Testament. That’s quite an achievement. We wonder why Jesus himself hadn’t thought of that. Some of Paul’s quotes are etched forever in Christian consciousness—and in stained glass, “Love is patient and kind.” “Let us not be weary in well doing…” 


Never mind that his letters are not easy reading. It’s no wonder that conservative scholar Ben Witherington III said of Paul’s letter to the Romans: “…the goal of understanding this formidable discourse is not reached for a considerable period time.” Legions of devout theologians have been hard at work at it for centuries.   This is a strange thing for an evangelical scholar to admit. The Gideons have given away more than two billion Bibles—so it’s right there in your hotel room, such easy access to God’s word. But understanding it requires “a considerable period of time”? 


Why invest so much time and energy in the writings of Paul? It would seem that theologians and laity alike aren’t all that bothered that Paul never met Jesus, and shunned information about Jesus that he might have gathered from the original disciples. Surely one of the most amazing, troubling, problematic texts in the New Testament is Galatians 1:11-12:


“For I want you to know, brothers that the gospel that was proclaimed by me is not of human origin; for I did not receive it from a human source, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ.”


Richard Carrier has pointed out that Paul’s target audience would have considered a revelation from Jesus a high credential indeed—far superior to secondhand knowledge he might have gleaned from followers of Jesus: “... information derived by revelation was more authoritative and trustworthy than any human tradition.” (p. 139, On the Historicity of Jesus: Why We Might Have Reason for Doubt). The dead Jesus himself was talking to Paul in his visions. Of course, to those in the early Jesus cult, it was the resurrected Jesus initiating the conversations. 


Hence it’s no surprise that we get theology from Paul, not history. The peasant preacher, Jesus from Galilee, is missing in Paul’s letter. Paul reports none of the parables or miracles of Jesus. There is no mention of the famous birth stories, let alone the virgin birth. Paul seems to have known nothing of the rich tapestry of events depicted in the gospels. 


It might be tempting to think that Paul somehow had heard about what Jesus said at the Last Supper. In I Corinthians 11 we find the famous words of the Eucharist, referring to the bread that Jesus had broken, “This is my body that is for you,” and “This cup is the new covenant in my blood.” 


So maybe Peter told him—despite Paul’s claim not to have relied on any human source. Well, no, because Paul said he received these words in a vision: “For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you…” Nor does Paul put this script in the setting of a “last supper,” in an upper room with the disciples. Christians who are familiar with the gospel accounts imagine this context. But it’s not there. It seems far more likely, however, that Mark’s Last Supper narrative is based on the words Mark found in I Corinthians 11. 


[For more on the work of scholars who acknowledge Mark’s reliance on Paul, see Richard Carrier’s article, Mark’s Use of Paul’s Epistles, in which he cites, among others, Tim Dykstra’s Mark, Canonizer of Paul, and David Oliver Smith, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and Paul.]


Pious translators have encouraged the idea that Paul knew what happened that night by translating the Greek word paredideto as “betrayed,” but Paul doesn’t mention Judas at all. It can also mean “handed over” or “delivered up.”  We have no reason to believe that Paul knew any of the stories about holy week and the death of Jesus that we find in the gospels. Indeed, based on Paul’s comments in Romans 13, he doesn’t seem to have known that Jesus was executed by Romans authorities. In his advice about being a good citizen, Paul wrote:


“But if you do what is wrong, you should be afraid, for the authority does not bear the sword in vain! It is the servant of God to execute wrath on the wrong doer.” 


Thus it’s no exaggeration that Jesus Christ for Paul was all theology, not history. Well, history as it happens on earth. For Paul the drama of Jesus being delivered up, crucified, and resurrected might have played out only in heavenly realms.  For more on this see Richard Carrier’s Jesus from Outer Space: What the Earliest Christians Really Believed about Christ.  Paul’s visions convinced him that it was this celestial being who spoke to him—and this resurrected Christ had magic powers for those who believed in it. Here is Paul’s magic spell in Romans 10:9:  “…if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.”


[Richard Carrier wrote Jesus from Outer Space to make his finding in On the Historicity of Jesus accessible to the general reader. I highly recommend both books. On the Historicity of Jesus, at more than 600 pages, may seem daunting, but Carrier points out at the opening of the book that he avoids a scholarly writing style. Thus OHJ is highly readable, and the hundreds of footnotes are extremely valuable.]   


Thus, right from the start, Jesus Christ is a product of theology inflation, and Jesus of Nazareth didn’t make an appearance until the later gospels. The author of Mark, the first gospel to be written, indulged in theology inflation as much as Paul did. There is nothing inherently impossible about a Galilean preacher showing up to be baptized by John the Baptist, but theology is present in Mark’s very first verse: Jesus is identified as the Son of God. In verse 11, a voice from heaven announces, “You are my son, the beloved.” This affirmation is reiterated in the Transfiguration scene in chapter 9, in which the voice of God comes from water vapor (a cloud), “This is my beloved Son, listen to him.” There is no attempt to describe Jesus without this faith bias. The gospels were written to promote faith.


In Mark 4 theology takes a bizarre turn. From the outset of the gospel, spreading the message of the imminent kingdom of God was Jesus’ mission. In Mark 1:38 he tells his disciples: “Let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do.” But then in Mark 4 Jesus tells his disciples that he teaches in parables to prevent his listeners from repenting: 

“And he said to them, ‘To you has been given the secret [or 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 4:11-12)

How does this possibly make sense? Naturally there are theological agendas here: (1) Members of cults are granted privileged insider information, (2) Mark reminds his readers that the vengeful God of the Old Testament is still calling the shots. Mark has loosely quoted Isaiah 6:10 (i.e., about people not perceiving and understanding), and the broader context of Isaiah 6 is important. In a vision Isaiah has been commissioned by God to warn the people of the utter destruction that awaits them:  


“Then I said, ‘How long, O Lord?’ And he said: ‘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)


This revenge theology emerges in full force in Mark 13.


In Mark 5 we find the story of Jesus transferring demons from a deranged man into pigs. But this is Mark’s most important point: the demons recognized Jesus as a superior being from the spiritual realm:


“When he saw Jesus from a distance, he ran and bowed down before him; and he shouted at the top of his voice, ‘What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I adjure you by God, do not torment me.’” (Mark 5:6-7)


This is a reiteration of Mark’s theme from the outset that Jesus is the son of God. 


In Mark 9 we find the Transfiguration story that I mentioned earlier. Here Jesus glows on a mountaintop (“his clothes became dazzling white”), and Elijah and Moses show up for a conversation: Elijah who had been taken to heaven via chariot, and Moses the primary superhero of the Old Testament. Mark’s theology inflation is obvious here: he wants to demonstrate that Jesus belongs in the company of the most esteemed figures of the past. Did such a thing happen in the life of a Galilean peasant preacher? No, this is religious fantasy, a vivid example of theology inflation that adds nothing whatever to a genuine portrait of Jesus of Nazareth. 


Mark chapter 13 has, for a long time, been considered a give-away that the gospel was written in the wake of the Jewish Romans War, 66-70 CE.  But it is cast in the form of a prediction by Jesus that the Temple would be destroyed: “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.”  (v. 2)


And the real horrors of that war are reflected in these verses:  


“…those in Judea must flee to the mountains; the one on the housetop must not go down or enter the house to take anything away; 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 it may not be in winter. 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 13:14-19)


In his book, Deciphering the Gospels Proves Jesus Never Existed, R. G. Price argues that Mark’s gospel “…is a fictional allegory that was likely written sometime  between 70 and 80 CE in reaction to the First Jewish-Roman War and the sacking of Jerusalem by the Romans. Virtually every scene in this story is built on literary allusions to the Hebrew scriptures.” (pp. xx-xxi)


If that is the case, all of Mark’s gospel is theology inflation.


What do we do with Matthew? 


Matthew proved to be a clumsy theologian. (See my article, Who the Hell Hired Matthew to Write a Gospel?) He decided that Jesus needed a virgin birth, and thought he had nailed the idea by quoting the Septuagint version of Isaiah 7:14, where the Hebrew word for young woman was translated virgin—but that chapter in Isaiah has nothing whatever to do with a messiah prediction several centuries later. 


Moreover, defying logic and common sense, he invented the story of Mary and Joseph fleeing to Egypt to protect Jesus, so that he could pull Hosea 11:1 into his story, “When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son…” Well, that’s awkward: “When Israel was a child.” 


Matthew’s theology inflation also included astrology. According to his account, there were magi from the east who had seen the Jesus Star. They came to pay homage to him. The story is contrived and absurd on several levels, and is mentioned nowhere else in the New Testament. But Matthew wanted to assure his readers that the birth of Jesus had been noticed in other nations.


Just as Mark had quoted from Isaiah 6 to emphasize the brutality of God, so Matthew gave additional script to John the Baptist—not found in Mark’s account—in John’s encounter with religious bureaucrats: 


“You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”  (Matthew 3:7-10) Matthew returns to this theme of fire—eternal fire—in his last judgment scene in Matthew 25. Theology inflation includes bringing the wrathful God of the Old Testament into the Jesus story.


Nor was he content with Mark’s account of the temptation of Jesus, just two verses, Mark 1:12-13:  


“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.”


Historians cringe at this text: “the Spirit” is given an active role, as are mythical creatures, Satan and angels. Even “forty days in the wilderness” is theology, i.e., an attempt to tie Jesus to the experience of the Israelites wandering in the desert for forty years.  


Matthew expanded this to eleven verses, and added a conversation between Jesus and Satan. This was in the wilderness. No one was there taking notes. Moreover, in a stunt reminiscent of Superman, Satan whisked Jesus to the pinnacle of the Jerusalem Temple and to a “very high mountain.” More fantasy, which has nothing to do with the life of a Galilean preacher.


But one of the most egregious examples of theology inflation in Matthew is the multiple zombie story in 27:51-53, when Jesus breathed his last: 


“The earth shook, and the rocks were split. The tombs also were opened, and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised. After his resurrection they came out of the tombs and entered the holy city and appeared to many.” 


Matthew missed his calling by about 2,000 years: he could have made a living writing headlines for supermarket tabloids. Was Matthew trying to merge Easter with Halloween? But this kind of theology inflation is destructive to the faith. Surely this has be one of the most embarrassing texts for apologists. It may be dismissed as a tall tale, which begs the question of why the resurrection of Jesus can’t also be classified as a tall tale. 


I want to touch on three examples of theology inflation in Luke, before moving on to the champion exaggerator, John. Luke postures as a historian in the first four verses of his gospel, claiming to pass on information from eyewitnesses and “investigating everything carefully.” Yet the first two chapters of the gospel are fantasy narratives about the predicted births of John the Baptist and Jesus; angels and heavenly hosts are given speaking roles. He constructed a birth narrative that cannot be reconciled with Matthew’s, including a census that required travel to one’s ancestral hometown to be registered. That was his absurd gimmick to get Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem. Matthew and Luke offered competing, irreconcilable, fantasy narratives. There is no evidence whatever for either of them. This is theology inflation.


There is also brutality in Luke’s theology. In the 14th chapter we read Jesus’ famous parable of the Great Banquet, in which the lame, the blind, the crippled are welcomed to a banquet when well-to-do invitees back out at the last minute. Indeed it is a wonderful story, but remember that Luke was a defender, protector, of the early Jesus cult. So, yes, you are welcome, no matter your social status, but divided loyalties were not acceptable. Luke added this Jesus script, 14:26: 


“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.”


Hatred of life itself. Let that sink in. Christians who worship an idealized Jesus commonly protest: Jesus couldn’t have meant that. Well, maybe not. But there is no doubt whatever that Luke reported that Jesus said it. And there is no reason to believe that his text was an embarrassment for Luke. There is a 39-page chapter about this text in Hector Avalos’ book, The Bad Jesus: The Ethics of New Testament Ethics, explaining that it means exactly what it seems to mean.


Luke probably built one of his stories using a couple of verses in the fake ending of Mark 16:12-13: 


“After this he appeared in another form to two of them, as they were walking into the country. And they went back and told the rest, but they did not believe them.” 


In his famous Road to Emmaus tale (chapter 24), Luke presents two disciples walking in the country. The resurrected Jesus appears to them, “but their eyes were kept from recognizing him.” Upon a little probing from Jesus, they tell him about the crucifixion: “… we had hoped that he was the one to set Israel free.” Jesus goes into lecture mode—or rather, Luke goes into cult propaganda mode:

“Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared!  Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?” Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.” (Luke 24:25-27)

“…the things about himself in all the scriptures.” In fact, we cannot identify anything in the ancient scriptures that are explicitly, clearly about a Galilean preacher who would come along in the first century. New Testament authors specialized in this theology inflation.


Later, after Jesus accepted their invitation to stay at Emmaus, as soon as he had broken bread with them—poof!—he vanished. Robert Conner has drawn attention to the likely sources of such narratives, in his book, Apparitions of Jesus: The Resurrection as Ghost Story.


Now, finally, what do we do with the gospel of John? 


Its author took theology inflation to a whole new level. I have often suggested that Christians read Mark’s gospel in one sitting, straight through, carefully; this takes about as much time as watching a movie. Then take a break, have a big glass of wine. Then read John’s gospel straight through. It’s a tougher go: you’ll need the wine. It’s especially troubling that Mark and John created two different Jesuses.


In Mark, Jesus comes out of nowhere to be baptized for the remission of sins. John would have none of that. Jesus doesn’t set foot in the water. Why would this be necessary, since John’s Jesus had been present at creation?—it was through him that everything was made. 


In Mark’s gospel, Jesus was in agony praying in Gethsemane, 


 “…he threw himself on the ground and prayed that, if it were possible, the hour might pass from him….Father, for you all things are possible; remove this cup from me; yet, not what I want, but what you want.”  (Mark 14:35-36)


John deleted that too. 


If you’ve not been brought up in the Christian faith, the bragging of Jesus in John is jarring:  “No one comes to the father but by me,” … “the father and I are one,” “…I am the resurrection and the life.” And here perhaps is a high point in John’s theology inflation: 


“Indeed, just as the Father raises the dead and gives them life, so also the Son gives life to whomever he wishes.  The Father judges no one but has given all judgment to the Son.” (John 6:21-22)


Since the promise of eternal life is pushed relentlessly in this gospel, this Jesus has remained popular. 


But John didn’t abandon a wrathful God, and non-belief is a crime. John 3:16, “God so loved the world” is a favorite, cherished verse, but look at John 3:18, “Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already…”  and John 3:36, “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever disobeys the Son will not see life, but must endure God’s wrath.” This is theology inflation typical of cult fanaticism: our way is the only way.


These texts result in an unrealistic view of the world. At one point John’s Jesus proclaims, “But take courage; I have conquered the world!” (16:33). Now when I read this line I think of Leonardo DiCaprio on the bow of the Titanic, yelling, “I’m the king of the world.” It is delusional theology inflation to present Jesus of Nazareth saying that he has conquered the world. As human history has unfolded, there is no evidence of that at all.


Let me mention also that John deleted the famous words of the Eucharist from his version of the Last Supper. Instead, in his chapter 6, following the feeding of the 5,000, we find these ghoulish words:  


“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)


Again, there’s too much hint of Halloween here. What better example of ancient cult superstition? This is theology inflation that embraces magical thinking. Eat this, drink that, and you’ll live forever. These are magic potions. 


A Few Concluding Words


It’s no wonder that the various “quests” for the historical Jesus—pursued for decades now—have not been successful. It’s virtually impossible for scholars to identify a reliable methodology for separating fact from fiction in the gospels. What did Jesus actually do or say? There is no contemporaneous documentation to back up events and scripts reported in the gospels, written decades later. Devout scholars have been inclined to pick and chose texts that suit their own theological sensibilities, hence so many different Jesuses have been advocated.  


Even if an artifact or document came to light proving that the Galilean peasant preacher did exist, the layers of fantasy, folklore, and magical thinking in the gospels hide him from view. But on top of the lack of data that historians rely on, theology inflation—beginning with Paul—has also played a major role in obscuring any “real Jesus” who may have existed. 


Hector Avalos suggested that, if we were to go verse-by-verse, 99 percent of the Bible would not be missed. If we could tag all of the texts that represent theology inflation, it might not come to 99 percent, but very little would be left that allows us to identify, reconstruct, any Jesus who may have existed. As Richard Carrier has said, “…maybe Jesus was just a total nobody, and that’s why nobody in his time mentioned him.” 


For sure, he has disappeared. 



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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