A Handy Concise Guide: Why the New Testament Is a Disaster

The church and clergy are masters at covering this up

Since my retirement ten years ago, I have made several trips to England, France, and Italy. Upon my arrival, always high on my agenda is visiting museums. One type of museum, by the way, is a cathedral or grand church, even if it is not a cathedral. I love to wander in these places, because of the art and architecture, which include magnificent stained glass, paintings, and sculpture. It is tempting to think—which after all, is the purpose of this extravagance—that a wonderful religion is the source of it all. This idea is reinforced when my visit happens at a time when worship services are being held. The organ music adds to the splendor of it all.
But all is not what it seems. Quite the contrary, the show, the splendor, are designed to fool most of the people most of the time. The church and clergy get away with it because the majority of the laity have failed to do any careful analysis of the New Testament, which is the basis for this religion. The laity would think I’m just being nasty—or out of my mind—to suggest that the most treasured part of their Bible is a disaster. But it’s not hard to make the case for that. 
Let’s take a look at several issues.
Where is the original version of the New Testament kept? 
Are the original documents at the British Museum, or at a monastery somewhere in the holy land? What percentage of church folks have given any thought to this? Of course, the awkward, embarrassing answer to “where is the ordinal” is that it doesn’t exist. All of the original NT documents were lost, so we don’t have them to consult. The oldest gospel fragment—about the size of a credit card—dates from the second century. The first complete manuscript of the NT dates from the fourth century, which is based on copies made from copies—several generations of copies, presumably from the originals. 
It is a common claim among conservative Christians that the Bible was divinely inspired, but a long time ago Bart Ehrman was puzzled why that mattered, since we don’t have the original versions of any of the books of the Bible. For many centuries manuscripts were copied by hand, by scribes who didn’t have electric lighting or eyeglasses. Some of them might not have even understood the Greek they were copying, some of them deleted words that seemed at odds with their beliefs—or added words to suit their own theologies. There are scholars who devote their careers to comparing hundreds of old manuscripts, trying to figure out the correct reading of the original manuscripts. All this prompts the suspicion that divine inspiration played no part in what the original authors wrote: why would a god bother to inspire a text, but then fail to devise a fool-proof transmission process? That is, why would he/she/it—presumably all-powerful—not make sure that no mistakes were made as the copies were made? 
And here’s something to think about: pick out any verse you want in the New Testament, then ask the question: how do you know if this verse came from the mind of a god, or from the imagination of the author?  Where can we find reliable, verifiable, objective data for deciding that? Believers who want to rescue the NT from the disaster category must provide this data. If they opt for “I’ll take it on faith”—this is an admission they refuse to think about it. 
How do we account for so much dishonesty we find in the NT?
By dishonesty I mean the plagiarism and forgeries that are so obvious. Scholars figured out a long time ago that the authors of Matthew and Luke copied most of Mark’s gospel when they wrote their gospels—but they neglected to admit doing this. And they changed Mark’s wording whenever they wanted to. Anyone who isn’t afraid to face these facts should buy a gospel-parallels book, in which Mark-Matthew-Luke-John texts are placed side by side, making it easy to see how the texts have been copied and manipulated. 
Through careful analysis of vocabulary and writing style, several of the NT letters attributed to the apostle Paul are considered forgeries: that is, written by someone else, but attributed to Paul to enhance the credibility of the content. We see the same dishonesty in assigning the names Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John to the gospels. These names are not found in the gospels themselves; they were attached to these documents in the second century.
Then there are interpolations, that is, texts that were inserted well after the documents were written. The end of Mark’s gospel is a primary example. Mark 16, verses 9-20 are not found in the oldest manuscripts of the gospel, which ends so abruptly at Mark 16:8: “So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them, and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.” End of story? Someone decided to add verses that include the appearance of the risen Jesus, but also goofy Jesus-script, 16:17-18, i.e., baptized Christians can drink poison and pick up snakes. 
Also, the famous story of the woman caught in adultery, John 8:1-11 (with the Jesus-script, “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her”) is missing from the oldest manuscripts of the gospel, and has even turned up in Luke. We have no way at all to verify that is an authentic story about Jesus. 
The problem of the rogue apostle Paul

If churchgoers skim the gospels now and then, they show even less interest the letters of Paul. And who can blame them, given the ranting and delusion we find in what he wrote. Moreover, there is a lot to be alarmed about, such as his bragging about how he knew about Jesus. In Galatians 1:11-12, we find this extraordinary claim: “For I want you to know, brothers and sisters, 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.” There is not a hint in the New Testament that Paul ever met Jesus, so this through a revelation is a reference to his visions. That is, his active imagination, or more bluntly, his hallucinations. “Oh, but Paul’s visions were the real thing!” The devout who insist that this is the case must explain why Mormon or Islamic visions are not the real thing. Protestants must explain why Catholic visions of Mary—all over the world—are not the real thing. Paul states a few verses later in Galatians 1 that he once visited Cephas (i.e., Peter) for fifteen days, but he emphasized lack of contact with those who knew Jesus: “… but I did not see any other apostle except James the Lord’s brother. In what I am writing to you, before God, I do not lie!”  

But who was this Cephas/Peter? We have ideas about Peter based on the gospels, but these documents were written later, and their accounts of Peter may be fictious: we have no way of verifying them. Strange that Paul visited with Peter for fifteen days, but came away with scant information about Jesus. In all his letters, Paul doesn’t mention the Empty Tomb on Easter morning, and based on what he wrote in Romans 13, he seems to have been unaware of the gospel accounts of Jesus being executed by Roman authorities. In all of Paul’s letters we find no mention of the teaching, deeds, or miracles of Jesus. This is strange, suspicious, indeed. And why rogue apostle seems appropriate. 

Paul was obsessed with a Jesus who reigned in the heavenly realms, and appeared to him in visions. This is so far removed from the Jesus presented by the gospel authors. And his personal hang-ups (e.g., regarding sex) seem to have impacted his theology. In Galatians 5:24 he states, “And those who belong to Christ have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.” This is so blatantly false. Who more than ordained priests can affirm that they “belong to Christ”—yet the Catholic church has taken so many hits as the many scandals of priests raping children have come to light. By a very careful reading of the authentic letters of Paul, we see his rage and bad temper: in Romans 1 he includes gossips and disobedient children among those who deserve to die. Such texts lend substantial weight to the charge that the New Testament is a disaster. And isn’t it a disaster that so much early Christian theology was invented by a man who never met Jesus, and who avoided the disciples who knew him? 

The problem of the unverifiable gospels

There is broad consensus among non-fundamentalist scholars that the gospels were written decades after the death of Jesus. A major clue for this dating is Mark 13, which reflects the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in 70 CE, during the First Jewish-Roman War. Since both Matthew and Luke copied so much of Mark, these gospels came even later. John is dated by some scholars to the early second century. So historians want to know where the gospel authors got their information about Jesus. They don’t mention their sources; as we have seen, Matthew and Luke don’t even admit that they copied so much material from Mark. Devout scholars have argued that “reliable oral tradition” about Jesus was used by the gospel authors. But how reliable is oral tradition that has been repeated for decades, and no doubt altered with each retelling? There is no way to verify this claim; it’s guesswork, wishful thinking. The apostle Paul seems not to have been aware of oral tradition about Jesus—or if he was, he trusted his visions more. There is no evidence whatever that the gospel authors used contemporaneous documentation—that is, letters, diaries, transcriptions written at the time of Jesus—to create their narratives.   They were theologians, not historians. Hence what a disaster: their stories of Jesus cannot be trusted.   

If you want a religion chock full of ancient superstitions, miracle folklore, and magical thinking—then the gospels are right for you!  
There is simply too much fantasy in the gospels. Outside of devout Christian circles, few serious thinkers find them believable. In Mark 5, Jesus transfers demons from a deranged man into a herd of pigs, because the demons ask him to! Did he do this by a magic spell? Anyone who reads Mark, then right away reads John will be startled by the vast differences in their portrayals of Jesus. In Mathew’s Last Judgement scene (chapter 25), people get eternal bliss with Jesus by being compassionate. In John 6, eternal life is achieved by eating the flesh and drinking the blood of Jesus. The apostle Paul adds to the confusion is Romans 10:9: “…if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. John 6 suggests that magic potions will do the trick, Romans 10 recommends magic spells. 
One of the reasons there are thousands of conflicting Christian brands is that there is so much theological muddle in the New Testament. One of the major superstitions in the ancient world was belief in dying-and-rising gods (see especially Richard Carrier’s article on this, Dying-and-Rising Gods: It’s Pagan, Guys. Get Over It). If you signed up for one of these cults, you were on course for eternal life. 
This is the biggest disaster: early Christians, Paul especially, bought into this form of magical thinking, and argued that Jesus was precisely this kind of god.      
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