Six Degrees of Separation: Between Modern Christians and Jesus

The gospels stand in the way



It is so common for churchgoers to assume they know what Jesus was like. This knowledge comes from what their clergy tell them, the content of favorite hymns—and sometimes by selectively reading the gospels, that is, returning to comforting teachings of Jesus remembered from childhood. 
 
The content of sermons and hymns is based on what can be found—and what is carefully ignored—in the gospels. But the gospels are not, in fact, a portal to Jesus information. They are a barrier. So many devout Christian seem not to have a clue that this is the case, and, moreover, why it is the case. Let’s look at six ways in which the gospels fail to deliver.
 
 
One: The gospel documents were mishandled by copyists for centuries. 
 
A long time ago Bart Ehrman wondered what was the value of claiming that the original Bible books were divinely inspired. There is this awkward fact: we don’t have any of the original Bible manuscripts. None have survived, lost to fire or flood, or they just wore out, disintegrated. For hundreds of years—before the invention of the printing press in the 15thcentury—copies were made by hand. So many mistakes were made by copyists who didn’t have eyeglasses, or the benefit of electric lighting—and some of the copyists may not have understood the Greek texts they were copying. Hence there are scholars today whose business it is to compare hundreds of old manuscripts, trying to identify the errors, to determine the actual exact content of the originals. 
 
Then there’s the problem that Bart Ehrman discusses in his book, The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture: The Effect of Early Christological Controversies on the Text of the New Testament.  In the introduction he states:
 
“Here I deal with the theological debates of the second and third Christian centuries, a period of intense rivalry among various groups of Christians who advocated divergent ways of understanding their religion… it was within this milieu of controversy that scribes sometimes changed their scriptural text to make them say what they were already known to mean in the technical parlance of textual criticism—which I retain for its significant ironies—these scribes ‘corrupted’ their texts for theological reasons.” (pp. xi-xii, The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture)
 
Readers of the King James Version of the New Testament have no way of knowing this happened, but more modern translations add footnotes indicating textual variations, for example, noting that a word or verse is missing, or a word or verse was added. There are some major discrepancies: Mark 16:9-20 is not in the oldest manuscripts, but was added later. We have no idea where the story of Jesus and the adulterous women (“Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her” (in John 8) came from. It may not be authentic at all. The editors of the Revised Standard Version added this footnote: “The most ancient authorities lack 7.53–8.11; other authorities add the passage here or after 7.36 or after 21.25 or after Luke 21.38, with variations of text; some mark the passage as doubtful.” Some modern translations (such as The Message Bible) are actually paraphrases intended to disguise the meaning of   disturbing texts.
 
It is strange indeed that a god powerful enough to inspire the books of the Bible would then allow the supposedly sacred text to be passed along for centuries in such a sloppy, haphazard fashion. How does that make sense? 
 
Two: The gospel writers failed as historians: they created a Jesus based on their own theologies.
 
The gospel writers never mention their sources. Think about that, take as much time as you need. At the opening of Luke’s gospel there is a reference to eyewitnesses, and at the end of John’s gospel the claim is made that the “beloved disciple” is the one who reported all the deeds of Jesus. But Luke never, anywhere, names the eyewitnesses, and the “beloved disciple” is a character who appears only in John’s gospel—which was written six or seven decades after the time of Jesus. So the professional historians are entitled to dismiss these claims. 
 
Take a look at any modern biography of any famous person. At the back there are many pages listing sources, e.g., letters, diaries, other books: these biographies are based on many hours of archival research. The gospels writers were not familiar with this demanding process. They were theologians, and their agenda was to promote, enhance belief in their holy hero. How did they know what they claim to know? We are so skeptical because they don’t cite credible sources. Just a couple of examples:
 
In Mark’s gospel, in chapter 1:12-13, we read that Jesus was tested by Satan in the wilderness for forty days. Just two verses. In Matthew 4, this story is expanded to eleven verses, which include Jesus and Satan arguing, i.e., Satan challenging him, Jesus responding. How would the author of Matthew’s gospel know this? Was someone there taking notes? Historians don’t take this seriously.
 
In Matthew’s gospel, 1:20, the author reports the contents of Joseph’s dream—an angel told him that Mary was pregnant by a holy spirit. Historians want to know how the author knew this. Did he have access to Joseph’s diary? Did he even keep a diary. John Loftus has quite legitimately asked:
 
“How might anonymous gospel writers, 90+ years later, objectively know Jesus was born of a virgin? Who presumably told them? The Holy Spirit? Why is it God always speaks to individuals in private, subjective, unevidenced whispers? Those claims are a penny a dozen.” (Debunking Christianity Blog, 25 December 2016) 
 
We don’t expect tall tales from historians. Theologians specialize in them….speaking of which…
 
Three:  The gospel writers throw up major barriers, obscuring Jesus: Fantasy, miracle folklore, and magical thinking.
 
Changing water to wine, walking on water, stilling a storm, glowing on a mountaintop, resurrecting a man from the dead by voice command, transferring demons from a man into pigs, healing a blind man using mud and spit—the list goes on and on. Devout folks have been conditioned to accept these tall tales because Jesus, their holy hero, was doing them: way back then, such miracles were par for the course. I recently saw a meme: “If Goldilocks and the three bears was a biblical story, Christians would believe it actually happened. And that’s really all you need to know about Christians.” 
 
And that’s just the problem (although liberal Christians might call fantasy stories metaphors). The gospel writers were influenced by the widespread miracle folklore of the time. With big doses of magical thinking thrown in as well, such as a magic spell Jesus must have pronounced to transfer demons into pigs. Is any of this really appropriate for what we might today call sane religion—free from embarrassing superstitions. When we read superhero stories, or Harry Potter, or watch Disney fantasies, sure, such fantastic tales are entertaining and fun—but we would reject any of them as proof of power possessed by superheroes or Harry Potter. It’s not a stretch at all to conclude that these elements in the gospels sprang from the imaginations of their authors—thus they stand in the way of grasping what Jesus of Nazareth was actually like. The gospels are a barrier.
 
Four: The church—theologians and clergy—have carefully crafted an “ideal Jesus of the imagination” based on carefully chosen gospel texts.
 
As I recall, it was Bart Ehrman who first mentioned the “ideal Jesus of the imagination.” This is an invention of the church, which has a product to sell: its holy hero must be the best thing ever. Magnificent cathedrals drive home this idea, with Jesus depicted in stained glass windows, sculpture, and paintings. This is the setting (as well as ordinary churches) for finely tuned show business: music, liturgy, costumes, hymns, e.g., What a Friend We Have in Jesus. And the clergy have a selected repertoire of positive gospel quotes to help the folks in the pews love their Jesus. Which means that the dark, sinister, alarming Jesus-script is ignored. And there’s a lot of it. A list of 292 Jesus quotes commonly ignored can be found at www.BadThingsJesusTaught.com. My 2021 book, Ten Things Christians Wish Jesus Hadn’t Taught offers a detailed discussion of many of these quotes. I have gifted this book to a few of my Christian friends. They refuse to read it. They have been sold on the church’s product: they really don’t want to think about it.
 
Five: Did Jesus even exist? If he was a mythical figure from the get-go, he is about as much help to the devout as Superman or Mickey Mouse.
 
The cherished gospels also block the way to considering the issues that provoke skepticism about Jesus as a real, historical person. Four gospels, with so much detail, so many stories about Jesus, taught to toddlers—and reinforced year after year. And this inhibits full-throttle curiosity, careful, critical study of the gospels. The scholars who have proposed that Jesus may have been fictional do so based on what we find in the gospels, what we don’t find in records that are contemporaneous with the supposed preacher from Nazareth, and what we don’t find in the New Testament epistles. It’s a complex issue, and so many church folks just don’t want to go there. Why jeopardize their ticket to salvation? They stand firm on the gospel stories they have been taught to love—without, in so many cases—actually studying them carefully. There is usually indignation at the suggestion that Jesus was fictional, with no desire to become acquainted with the basic issues that illustrate the problem.
 
Six: Our view of the world, and that of the first century.
 
In his gospel sequel, the Book of Acts, the author of Luke described the ascent of Jesus to heaven, disappearing above the clouds to join god at his throne—either a few miles up, and somewhere below the moon. This is based on the ancient world view, and we know it cannot possibly be true. But ancient world superstitions also included belief in dying-and-rising gods. Christian attachment to the gospels prevents full exploration of this thought-world from which the Jesus cult emerged. Fear of death has been a constant in human experience, and religions have capitalized on this fear with the eternal life gimmick: “We worship a god who died, then rose from the dead, and if you sign up, his magical powers will rescue you from death too.”
 
Richard Carrier’s 2018 essay, Dying-and-Rising Gods: It’s Pagan Guys. Get Over It provides abundant detail about these cults. It’s no surprise that those who promoted belief in Jesus adopted this gimmick for their hero. But the theologians who participated in this swindle—by writing the four gospels we’re so familiar with—failed to agree on details as they spun their accounts. No matter, of course, devout believers who love their gospels have no desire whatever to look behind the pious fa├žade to discover the roots of their beliefs. 
 
Again, the gospels are a barrier to honest research on Christianity’s origins. 
 
 
 
David Madison was a pastor in the Methodist Church for nine years, and has a PhD in Biblical Studies from Boston University. He is the author of two books, Ten Tough Problems in Christian Thought and Belief: a Minister-Turned-Atheist Shows Why You Should Ditch the Faith, now being reissued in several volumes, the first of which is Guessing About God (2023) and Ten Things Christians Wish Jesus Hadn’t Taught: And Other Reasons to Question His Words (2021). The Spanish translation of this book is also now available. 
 
His YouTube channel is here. At the invitation of John Loftus, he has written for the Debunking Christianity Blog since 2016.
 
The Cure-for-Christianity Library©, now with more than 500 titles, is here. A brief video explanation of the Library is here


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