By Dan Barker
This article first appeared in Abuse Your Illusions: The Disinformation Guide To Media Mirages and Establishment Lies, edited by Russ Kick, 2003.
During the 19 years I preached the Gospel, the resurrection of Jesus was the keystone of my ministry. Every Easter I affirmed the Apostle Paul's admonition: "If Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation has been in vain and your faith has been in vain." I wrote a popular Easter musical called "His Fleece Was White As Snow" with the joyous finale proclaiming: "Sing Hosanna! Christ is Risen! The Son has risen to shine on me!"
But now I no longer believe it. Many bible scholars and ministers--including one third of the clergy in the Church of England--reject the idea that Jesus bodily came back to life. So do 30% of born-again American Christians!
Why? When the Gospel of John portrays the post-mortem Jesus on a fishing trip with his buddies and the writer of Matthew shows him giving his team a mountain-top pep talk two days after he died, how can there be any doubt that the original believers were convinced he had bodily risen from the grave?
There have been many reasons for doubting the claim, but the consensus among critical scholars today appears to be that the story is a "legend." During the 60-70 years it took for the Gospels to be composed, the original story went through a growth period that began with the unadorned idea that Jesus, like Grandma, had "died and gone to heaven" and ended with a fantastic narrative produced by a later generation of believers that included earthquakes, angels, an eclipse, a resuscitated corpse, and a spectacular bodily ascension into the clouds.
The earliest Christians believed in the "spiritual" resurrection of Jesus. The story evolved over time into a "bodily" resurrection.
Before discussing legend in detail, let's look briefly at some of the other reasons for skepticism.
Can history prove a miracle?
Philosopher Antony Flew, in a 1985 debate on the resurrection, pointed out that history is the wrong tool for proving miracle reports. "The heart of the matter," said Flew, "is that the criteria by which we must assess historical testimony, and the general presumptions that make it possible for us to construe leftovers from the past as historical evidence, are such that the possibility of establishing, on purely historical grounds, that some genuinely miraculous event has occurred is ruled out."
When examining artifacts from the past, historians assume that nature worked back then as it does today; otherwise, anything goes. American patriot Thomas Paine, in The Age of Reason, asked: "Is it more probable that nature should go out of her course, or that a man should tell a lie? We have never seen, in our time, nature go out of her course; but we have good reason to believe that millions of lies have been told in the same time; it is, therefore, at least millions to one, that the reporter of a miracle tells a lie."
It is a fact of history and of current events that human beings exaggerate, misinterpret, or wrongly remember events. They have also fabricated pious fraud. Most believers in a religion understand this when examining the claims of other religions.
A messiah figure coming back to life--appearing out of thin air and disappearing--is a fantastic story, by anyone's standard, and that is what makes it a miracle claim. If dead people today routinely crawled out of their graves and went back to work, a resurrection would have little value as proof of God's power. The fact that it is impossible or highly unlikely is what makes it a miracle.
And that is what removes it from the reach of history.
History is limited; it can only confirm events that conform to natural regularity. This is not an anti-supernaturalistic bias against miracles, as is sometimes claimed by believers. The miracles may have happened, but in order to know they happened, we need a different tool of knowledge. Yet except for faith (which is not a science), to make a case for the resurrection of Jesus, history is the only tool Christians have.
Examining a miracle with history is like searching for a planet with a microscope.
David Hume wrote: "No testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle unless that testimony be of such a kind that its falsehood would be more miraculous than the fact which it endeavours to establish." Carl Sagan liked to say, "Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence." Such evidence is exactly what we do not have with the resurrection of Jesus.
At best (or worst), this should convince us not that the resurrection is disproved, but that disbelief in the resurrection is rationally justified. The incompatibility of miracles with the historical method is persuasive, especially to those not committed a priori to the truth of religious scripture, but we still need something more than this if we are to say with confidence that the bodily resurrection did not happen.
Did Jesus exist?
A number of scholars and writers, known informally as "mythicists," insist there is no convincing evidence for a historical Jesus at all. If the entire story is a myth, then he could hardly have risen from the dead.
The life of Jesus is not corroborated. Not a single word about Jesus appears outside of the New Testament in the entire first century, even though many writers documented first-hand the early Roman Empire in great detail, including careful accounts of the time and place where Jesus supposedly taught. The little paragraph about Jesus that appears in Josephus' Antiquities (written after 90 CE) is regarded by liberal and conservative scholars to have been either entirely interpolated or drastically altered by a later generation of believers, probably by the dishonest Christian historian Eusebius in the 4th century. (Whichever view is right, they both agree that early Christians tampered with documents, a fact that must bear on the reliability of the New Testament writings.)
The handful of 2nd-century references to "Christ" are too late to be of much value. They are brief 2nd- or 3rd-hand accounts of what some people by that time believed had happened in their distant past, and none of them mention the name "Jesus." They are hearsay, not history.
The silence of Paul is also a problem. Paul wrote his letters many years before the Gospels, and it appears he was unaware of anything said in them about Jesus, except for some wording from a Last Supper ritual. Paul never met Jesus and never quoted the Jesus of the Gospels, even when that would have served his purposes. He sometimes disagreed with Jesus. He never mentioned a single deed or miracle of Jesus. If Jesus had been a real person, certainly Paul, his main cheerleader, would have talked about him as a man. The "Christ" in Paul's epistles is mainly a supernatural figure, not a flesh and blood man of history.
Mythicists notice that there are many pagan parallels to the resurrection story. The Greek god Dionysus was said to be the "Son of Zeus." He was killed, buried, and rose from the dead and now sits at the right hand of the father. His empty tomb at Delphi was long preserved and venerated by believers. The Egyptian Osiris, two millennia earlier, was said to have been slain by Typhon, rose again, and became ruler of the dead. Adonis and Attis also suffered and died to rise again.
The Persian god Mithra, revered by many Romans, was said to have been born of a virgin in a sacred birth-cave of the Rock on December 25, witnessed by shepherds and Magi bringing gifts. He raised the dead, healed the sick, made the blind see and the lame walk, and exorcised devils. Mithra celebrated a Last Supper with his twelve disciples before he died. His image was buried in a rock tomb, but he was withdrawn and said to live again. His triumph and ascension to heaven were celebrated at the spring equinox (Easter).
Anybody who was anybody in those days was born of a virgin and ascended to heaven. The Roman historian Suetonius, whose brief 2nd-century mention of "Chrestus" in Rome is sometimes offered as evidence of a historical Jesus (though few believe Jesus visited Rome, and "Chrestus" is not "Jesus"), also reported that Caesar Augustus bodily ascended into heaven when he died.
Christianity appears to have been cut from the same fabric as pagan mythology, and some early Christians admitted it. Arguing with pagans around 150 CE, Justin Martyr said: "When we say that the Word, who is the first born of God, was produced without sexual union, and that he, Jesus Christ, our teacher, was crucified and died, and rose again, and ascended into heaven; we propound nothing different from what you believe regarding those whom you esteem sons of Jupiter (Zeus)."
If early Christians, who were closer to the events than we are, said the story of Jesus is "nothing different" from paganism, can modern skeptics be faulted for suspecting the same thing?
Critics are not agreed on the degree of relevance of the pagan parallels to Jesus, and the number of true mythicists is a tiny minority among scholars, but it doesn't matter much. Even if Jesus did exist, that does not mean he rose from the dead.
The Jesus of history is not the Jesus of the New Testament. Many skeptics believe there might have existed a self-proclaimed messiah figure named Yeshua (there were many others) on whom the later New Testament legend was loosely based, but they consider the exaggerated miracle-working resurrecting Jesus character to be a literary creation of a later generation of believers. The Gospels, written many decades after the fact, are a blend of fact and fantasy--historical fiction--and although the proportions of the blend may differ from scholar to scholar, no credible historians take them at 100% face value.
Some critics have offered naturalistic explanations for the face-value New Testament stories of the empty tomb. Maybe Jesus didn't actually die on the cross; he just passed out, and woke up later--the "swoon theory". Or perhaps the disciples hallucinated the risen Jesus. (They and "five hundred" others.) Or Mary went to the wrong tomb, finding it empty, mistaking the "young man" for an angel. Or perhaps the body was stolen--the "conspiracy theory," an idea that boasts a hint of biblical support in that the only eye-witnesses (the Roman soldiers) said that was exactly what happened. Or perhaps Jesus' body was only temporarily stored in the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea (possibly with the two thieves) and was later reburied in a common grave, the usual fate of executed criminals. Or perhaps someone else, such as Thomas, was crucified in Jesus's place.
These hypotheses have various degrees of plausibility. In my opinion, none of them seem overly likely, but they are at least as credible as a corpse coming back to life, and they fit the biblical facts.
If a believer asks, "Why have you ruled out the supernatural?" I will say I have not ruled it out: I have simply given it the low probability it deserves along with the other possibilities. I might equally ask them, "Why have you ruled out the natural?"
The problem I have with some of the natural explanations is that they give the text too much credit. They tend to require almost as much faith as the orthodox interpretation. Combined with the historical objection and the mythicists' arguments (above), the existence of a number of plausible natural alternatives can bolster the confidence of skeptics, but they can't positively disprove the bodily resurrection of Jesus.
The resurrection of Jesus is one of the few stories that is told repeatedly in the bible--more than 5 times--so it provides an excellent test for the orthodox claim of scriptural inerrancy and reliability. When we compare the accounts, we see they don't agree.
What time did the women visit the tomb?
Matthew: "as it began to dawn" (28:1)
Mark "very early in the morning . . . at the rising of the sun" (16:2, KJV); "when the sun had risen" (NRSV); "just after sunrise" (NIV)
Luke: "very early in the morning" (24:1, KJV) "at early dawn" (NRSV)
John: "when it was yet dark" (20:1)
Who were the women?
Matthew: Mary Magdalene and the other Mary (28:1)
Mark: Mary Magdalene, the mother of James, and Salome (16:1)
Luke: Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and other women (24:10)
John: Mary Magdalene (20:1)
What was their purpose?
Matthew: to see the tomb (28:1)
Mark: had already seen the tomb (15:47), brought spices (16:1)
Luke: had already seen the tomb (23:55), brought spices (24:1)
John: the body had already been spiced before they arrived (19:39,40)
Was the tomb open when they arrived?
Matthew: No (28:2)
Mark: Yes (16:4)
Luke: Yes (24:2)
John: Yes (20:1)
Who was at the tomb when they arrived?
Matthew: One angel (28:2-7)
Mark: One young man (16:5)
Luke: Two men (24:4)
John: Two angels (20:12)
Where were these messengers situated?
Matthew: Angel sitting on the stone (28:2)
Mark: Young man sitting inside, on the right (16:5)
Luke: Two men standing inside (24:4)
John: Two angels sitting on each end of the bed (20:12)
What did the messenger(s) say?
Matthew: "Fear not ye: for I know that ye seek Jesus, which was crucified. He is not here for he is risen, as he said. Come, see the place where the Lord lay. And go quickly, and tell his disciples that he is risen from the dead: and, behold, he goeth before you into Galilee; there shall ye see him: lo, I have told you." (28:5-7)
Mark: "Be not afrighted: Ye seek Jesus of Nazareth, which was crucified: he is risen; he is not here: behold the place where they laid him. But go your way, tell his disciples and Peter that he goeth before you into Galilee: there shall ye see him, as he said unto you." (16:6-7)
Luke: "Why seek ye the living among the dead? He is not here, but is risen: remember how he spake unto you when he was yet in Galilee, Saying, The Son of man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men, and be crucified, and the third day rise again." (24:5-7)
John: "Woman, why weepest thou?" (20:13)
Did the women tell what happened?
Matthew: Yes (28:8)
Mark: No. "Neither said they any thing to any man." (16:8)
Luke: Yes. "And they returned from the tomb and told all these things to the eleven, and to all the rest." (24:9, 22-24)
John: Yes (20:18)
When Mary returned from the tomb, did she know Jesus had been resurrected?
Matthew: Yes (28:7-8)
Mark: Yes (16:10,11)
Luke: Yes (24:6-9,23)
John: No (20:2)
When did Mary first see Jesus?
Matthew: Before she returned to the disciples (28:9)
Mark: Before she returned to the disciples (16:9,10)
John: After she returned to the disciples (20:2,14)
Could Jesus be touched after the resurrection?
Matthew: Yes (28:9)
John: No (20:17), Yes (20:27)
After the women, to whom did Jesus first appear?
Matthew: Eleven disciples (28:16)
Mark: Two disciples in the country, later to eleven (16:12,14)
Luke: Two disciples in Emmaus, later to eleven (24:13,36)
John: Ten disciples (Judas and Thomas were absent) (20:19, 24)
Paul: First to Cephas (Peter), then to the twelve. (Twelve? Judas was dead). (I Corinthians 15:5)
Where did Jesus first appear to the disciples?
Matthew: On a mountain in Galilee (60-100 miles away) (28:16-17)
Mark: To two in the country, to eleven "as they sat at meat" (16:12,14)
Luke: In Emmaus (about seven miles away) at evening, to the rest in a room in Jerusalem later that night. (24:31, 36)
John: In a room, at evening (20:19)
Did the disciples believe the two men?
Mark: No (16:13)
Luke: Yes (24:34--it is the group speaking here, not the two)
What happened at that first appearance?
Matthew: Disciples worshipped, some doubted, "Go preach." (28:17-20)
Mark: Jesus reprimanded them, said "Go preach" (16:14-19)
Luke: Christ incognito, vanishing act, materialized out of thin air, reprimand, supper (24:13-51)
John: Passed through solid door, disciples happy, Jesus blesses them, no reprimand (21:19-23)
Did Jesus stay on earth for more than a day?
Mark: No (16:19) Compare 16:14 with John 20:19 to show that this was all done on Sunday
Luke: No (24:50-52) It all happened on Sunday
John: Yes, at least eight days (20:26, 21:1-22)
Acts: Yes, at least forty days (1:3)
Where did the ascension take place?
Matthew: No ascension. Book ends on mountain in Galilee
Mark: In or near Jerusalem, after supper (16:19)
Luke: In Bethany, very close to Jerusalem, after supper (24:50-51)
John: No ascension
Paul: No ascension
Acts: Ascended from Mount of Olives (1:9-12)
It is not just atheist critics who notice these problems. Christian scholars agree that the stories are discrepant. Culver H. Nelson: "In any such reading, it should become glaringly obvious that these materials often contradict one another egregiously. No matter how eagerly one may wish to do so, there is simply no way the various accounts of Jesus' post-mortem activities can be harmonized." A. E. Harvey: "All the Gospels, after having run closely together in their accounts of the trial and execution, diverge markedly when they come to the circumstance of the Resurrection. It's impossible to fit their accounts together into a single coherent scheme." Thomas Sheehan agrees: "Despite our best efforts, the Gospel accounts of Jesus' post-mortem activities, in fact, cannot be harmonized into a consistent Easter chronology." The religiously independent (though primarily Christian) scholars in the Westar Institute, which includes more than 70 bible scholars with Ph.D or equivalent, conclude: "The five gospels that report appearances (Matthew, Luke, John, Peter, Gospel of the Hebrews) go their separate ways when they are not rewriting Mark; their reports cannot be reconciled to each other. Hard historical evidence is sparse."
I have challenged believers to provide a simple non-contradictory chronological narrative of the events between Easter Sunday and the ascension, without omitting a single biblical detail. So far, without misinterpreting words or drastically rearranging passages, no one has given a coherent account. Some have offered "harmonies" (apparently not wondering why the work of a perfect deity should have to be harmonized), but none have met the reasonable request to simply tell the story.
Urging us to consider who Jesus was, Christian apologist Josh McDowell offers three choices: "Liar, Lunatic, or Lord." But this completely ignores a fourth option: Legend. If the Jesus character is to some degree, if not completely, a literary creation, then it was others who put words in his mouth and it is grossly simplistic to take them at face value.
A legend begins with a basic story (true or false) that grows into something more embellished and exaggerated as the years pass. When we look at the documents of the resurrection of Jesus, we see that the earliest accounts are very simple, later retellings are more complex, and the latest tales are fantastic. In other words, they look exactly like a legend.
The documents that contain a resurrection story are usually dated like this:
Writer Date Resurrection passage
Paul: 50-55 (I Cor. 15:3-8)
Mark: 70 (Mark 16)
Matthew: 80 (Matthew 28)
Luke: 85 (Luke 24)
Gospel of Peter: 85-90 (Fragment)
John: 95 (John 20-21)
This is the general dating agreed upon by most scholars, including the Westar Institute. Some conservative scholars prefer to date them earlier, and others have moved some of them later, but this would not change the order of the writing , which is more important than the actual dates when considering legendary growth. Shifting the dates changes the shape but not the fact of the growth curve.
I made a list of things I consider "extraordinary" (natural and supernatural) in the stories between the crucifixion and ascension of Jesus: earthquakes, angel(s), rolling stone, dead bodies crawling from Jerusalem graves ("Halloween"), Jesus appearing out of thin air ("Now you see him") and disappearing ("Now you don't"), the "fish story" miracle, Peter's noncanonical "extravaganza" exit from the tomb (see below), a giant Jesus with head in the clouds, a talking cross, and a bodily ascension into heaven. Perhaps others would choose a slightly different list, but I'm certain it would include most of the same.
Then I counted the number of extraordinary events that appear in each account:
Writer Extraordinary events
Putting these on a time graph produces illustration 1.
Notice that the curve goes up as the years pass. The later resurrection reports contain more extraordinary events than the earlier ones, so it is clear that the story, at least in the telling, has evolved and expanded over time.
In finer detail, we can count the number of messengers at the tomb, which also grows over time, as well as the certainty of the claim that they were angels:
Paul: 0 angels
Mark: 1 young man, sitting
Matthew: 1 angel, sitting
Luke: 2 men, standing
Peter: 2 men/angels, walking
John: 2 angels, sitting
Other items fit the pattern. Bodily appearances are absent from the first two accounts, but show up in the last four accounts, starting in the year 80. The bodily ascension is absent from the first three stories, but appears in the last three, starting in the year 85.
This reveals the footprints of legend.
The mistake many modern Christians make is to view 30 CE backward through the distorted lens of 80-100 CE, more than a half century later. They forcibly superimpose the extraordinary tales of the late Gospels anachronistically upon the plainer views of the first Christians, pretending naively that all Christians believed exactly the same thing across the entire first century.
Paul's account (year 55)
How can we say that Paul reported no extraordinary events? Doesn't his account include an empty tomb and appearances of a dead man? Here is what Paul said in I Corinthians 15:3-8, around the year 55, the earliest written account of the resurrection:
"For I delivered unto you first of all that which I also received, how that
Christ died for our sins
in accordance with the Scriptures,
and was buried. [etaphe]
And he was raised [egeiro] on the third day
in accordance with the Scriptures
and he appeared [ophthe] to Cephas [Peter]
and then to the twelve.
Afterward, he appeared to more than 500 brethren,
most of whom are still alive,
though some have fallen asleep.
Afterward he appeared to James,
and then to all the missionaries [apostles].
Last of all, as to one untimely born,
he appeared also to me."
This is a formula, or hymn, in poetic style that Paul claims he "received" from a believer reciting an earlier oral tradition. He edited the end of it, obviously. Viewing this passage charitably, it is possible that it came from just a few years after Jesus lived, although notice that Paul does not call him "Jesus" here. It is interesting that one of the arguments some apologists give for the authenticity of the New Testament is that it is written in a simple narrative style, unlike the poetic style of other myths and legends--yet the very first account of the resurrection is written in a poetic "legendary" style.
This letter to the Corinthians was written at least a quarter of a century after the events to people far removed from the scene--Corinth is about 1,500 miles away by land. None of the readers, many or most not even born when Jesus supposedly died, would have been able to confirm the story. They had to take Paul's word alone that there were "500 brethren" who saw Jesus alive. Who were these 500 nameless people, and why didn't they or any of the thousands who heard their stories write about it? And isn't 500 a suspiciously round number? And why didn't Jesus appear to anyone who was not part of the in-crowd of believers? In any event, what Paul actually wrote here does not support a bodily resurrection. It supports legend.
First, notice how simple it is, this earliest resurrection story. No angelic messages, no mourning women, no earthquakes, no miracles, no spectacular bodily ascension into the clouds.
Nor is there an "empty tomb." The word "buried" is the ambiguous etaphe, which simply means "put in a grave (taphos)." Although a taphos could be a common dirt grave (the most likely destination of executed criminals) or a stone sepulchre (such as the one owned by Joseph of Arimathea), it is important to note that this passage does not use the word "sepulchre" (mnemeion) that first appears in Mark's later account.
Since Paul does not mention a tomb, we can hardly conclude with confidence he was thinking of an "empty tomb." Those who think he was talking of a tomb are shoehorning Mark's Gospel back into this plain hymn.
Neither is there a "resurrection" in this passage. The word "raised" is egeiro, which means to "wake up" or "come to." Paul did not use the word "resurrection" (anastasis, anistemi) here, though he certainly knew it. Egeiro is used throughout the New Testament to mean something simpler. "Now it is high time to awaken [egeiro] out of sleep" was not written to corpses. "Awake [egeiro] thou that sleepest, and arise [anistemi] from the dead, and Christ shall give thee light" was also written to breathing people, so Paul obviously means something non-physical here, even with his use of "resurrect," contrasted with egeiro (before you get up, you have to wake up). Matthew uses egeiro like this: "There arose a great tempest in the sea, insomuch that the ship was covered with waves: but he was asleep. And his disciples came to him and awoke [egeiro] him, saying, Lord, save us: we perish."  No one thinks Jesus "resurrected" from a boat.
Whatever Paul may have believed happened to Jesus, he did not say that his revived body came out of a tomb. It is perfectly consistent with Christian theology to think that the spirit of Jesus, not his body, was awakened from the grave, as Christians today believe that the spirit of Grandpa has gone to heaven while his body rots in the ground.
In fact, just a few verses later, Paul confirms this: "Flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God." The physical body is not important to Christian theology.
But what about the post-mortem appearances Paul relates? Don't they suggest a risen body? Actually, the word "appeared" in this passage is also ambiguous and does not require a physical presence. The word ophthe, from the verb horao, is used for both physical sight as well as spiritual visions.
For example: "And a vision appeared [ophthe] to Paul in the night; There stood a man of Macedonia, . . . And after he had seen the vision [horama], immediately we endeavored to go into Macedonia . . ." No one thinks the Macedonian was standing bodily in front of Paul when he "appeared" to him.
Paul includes Peter in his list of "appearances" by Christ, yet at the Transfiguration described in Matthew we find the same word used for an "appearance" to Peter that was not physical: "And after six days Jesus takes Peter, James, and John his brother, and brings them up into a high mountain apart, and was transfigured before them: and his face did shine as the sun, and his raiment was white as the light. And behold there appeared [ophthe] Moses and Elijah talking with him." Did Moses and Elijah appear physically to Peter? Shall we start looking for their empty tombs? This is obviously some kind of spiritual appearance.
Besides, if we believe Mark and Matthew, Paul's first witness to the resurrection appearances was an admitted liar. In a court of law, Peter's reliability would be seriously compromised since he had repeatedly denied knowing Jesus just a couple of days earlier, after he had promised Jesus he would be loyal. Paul himself was not above using a lie if it furthered his message: "Let God be true, but every man a liar . . . For if the truth of God hath more abounded through my lie unto his glory; why yet am I also judged a sinner?"
Paul, needing to establish credentials with his readers, tacks onto the list that Christ "appeared also to me," so if we look at the description of that event, we can see what he means. Paul claimed that he had met Jesus on the road to Damascus, but notice that Jesus did not physically appear to Paul there. He was knocked off his horse and blinded. (I know there is no horse in the story, but for some reason I picture a horse--an example of legend-making!) How could Jesus appear physically to a blind man? Paul's men admit they did not see anyone, hearing just a voice (Acts 9:7) or not hearing a voice (Acts 22:9), take your pick. This "appearance" to Paul was supposedly years after Jesus ascended into heaven, which raises a good question: where was Jesus all those years? Was his physical body hanging around in the clouds, hovering over the road to Damascus? How did he eat or bathe or cut his hair during that time?
Clearly, Paul did not shake hands with Jesus, yet he includes his "appearance" in the list with the others. Elsewhere Paul elaborates on his roadside encounter: "For I neither received it of man, neither was I taught it, but . . . when it pleased God . . . to reveal his Son in me, that I might preach him among the heathen, immediately I conferred not with flesh and blood.". Notice he does not say "I met Jesus physically" or "I saw Jesus"--he says God "revealed his son in me." This was an inner experience, not a face-to-face meeting. This is exactly how many modern Christians talk about their own "personal relationship" with Jesus.
All of the "appearances" in I Corinthians 15:3-8 must be viewed as psychological "spiritual experiences," not physiological encounters with a revived corpse. In Paul, we have no empty tomb, no resurrection, and no bodily appearances.
Mark (year 70)
About 15 years later, the next account of the resurrection appears in Mark, the first Gospel, written at least 40 years after the events. Almost all adults who were alive in the year 30 were dead by then. No one knows who wrote Mark--the Gospels are all anonymous, and names were formally attached to them much later, around the year 180. Whoever wrote Mark is speaking from the historical perspective of a second generation of believers, not as an eye-witness.
His account of the resurrection (16:1-8) is only eight verses long. The 16 succeeding verses that appear in some translations (with snake handling and poison drinking) were a later addition by someone else (evidence that Christian tampering began early).
Mark's story is more elaborate than Paul's, but still very simple, almost blunt. If we consider the young man at the sepulchre "clothed in a long white garment" to be an angel, then we have one extraordinary event. Just one.
There are no earthquakes, no post-mortem appearances, and no ascension. In fact, there is no belief in the resurrection, and no preaching of a risen Christ. The book ends with the women running away: ". . . neither said they any thing to any man; for they were afraid," a rather limp finish considering the supposed import of the event.
Notice that the young man says "he is risen (egeiro)." Like Paul, he avoids the word "resurrection."
Matthew (year 80)
In Matthew, a half century after the events, we finally get some of the fantastic stories of which modern Christians are so fond. The earthquake, rolling stone, and "Halloween" story appear for the first (and only) time. We also have a bonafide angel and post-mortem appearances.
Luke (year 85)
Matthew and Luke were based to some degree on Mark, but they each added their own wrinkles. In Luke, we have the "Now you see him, now you don't" appearance and disappearance of Jesus, and a bodily ascension. We also have two angels, if we consider the men "in shining garments" to be angels.
Gospel of Peter (year 85)
This is a fragment of an extracanonical Gospel, purportedly authored by Simon Peter (which means it was composed by a creative Christian), that begins in the middle of what appears to be a resurrection story. The dating is controversial, but it certainly was composed no earlier than the 80s.
A crowd from Jerusalem visited the sealed tomb on the sabbath. On Easter morning, the soldiers observed the actual resurrection after the stone rolled by itself away from the entrance (no earthquake). In an extravaganza of light, two young men descended from the sky and went inside the tomb, then the two men whose heads reached to the sky carried out a third man who was taller, followed by a cross. A voice from heaven asked, "Have you preached to those who sleep?" and the cross answered, "Yes!" Then someone else entered the tomb. Later the women found a young man inside saying something similar to what was said in Mark. "Then the women fled in fear."
This is fantastic stuff.
Gospel of John (year 90-95)
The last of the canonical Gospels appears to be mainly independent of the others in style and content, which is why Mark, Matthew and Luke, but not John, are called the "synoptic Gospels." John's resurrection story has real angels, bodily appearances (including a "now you see him" manifestation through shut doors), the "fish story" miracle, and an ascension.
The anonymous writer ends his Gospel with the claim that there were "many other things which Jesus did, the which, if they should be written every one, I suppose that even the world itself could not contain the books that should be written." John is obviously exaggerating, but this is no surprise since he admits that his agenda is not simply to tell the facts: "And many other signs truly did Jesus in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book: But these are written, that ye might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing ye might have life through his name." This is not the work of a historian; it is propaganda: "that you might believe." Authors like this should be read with a grain of salt.
Did the disciples die for a lie?
We often hear that the resurrection must have happened because the disciples were so confident they endured torture and death for their faith (though there is no first-century evidence for this claim). But think about this. The Gospels were written between the years 70 and 100. Assume, charitably, that the writers were the actual disciples and that they were young men when they knew Jesus, perhaps 20 years old. (Matthew the tax collector and Luke the physician were perhaps older?) The life expectancy in that century was 45 years , so people in their 60s would have been ancient. (As recently as the 1900 US Census, people 55 and older were counted as "elderly.") Mark would have been 65, Matthew at least 70, Luke at least 75, and John almost 90 when they sat down to write.
How did the disciples survive the persecution and torture to live long enough to write those books? Being martyred is no way to double your life expectancy. It makes more sense to think those anonymous documents were composed by a later generation of believers. They were not eye-witnesses.
Why do so many believe in the resurrection?
In any open question, we should argue from what we do know to what we do not know. We do know that fervent legends and stubborn myths arise easily, naturally. We do not know that dead people rise from the grave. We do know that human memory is imperfect. We do not know that angels exist.
Some Christians argue that the period of time between the events and the writing was too short for a legend to have evolved; but we know this is not true. The 1981 legend of the Virgin Mary appearance at Medjugorge spread across Yugoslavia in just two days, confirmed by repeated corroborative testimony of real witnesses who are still alive. The place was visited almost immediately by international pilgrims, some claiming they were healed at the spot. Yet few Protestants believe the story. Shall we start looking for the empty tomb of Mary?
The legend of Elian Gonzales, the young Cuban refugee who was rescued off the coast of Florida in 1999, developed in a couple of weeks into an organized cult, complete with claims that he was the "Cuban Messiah" who would set his oppressed people free from the Castro Devil, sightings of the Virgin Mary in downtown Miami, tales of his protection by angels and dolphins (actually dolphin fish).  The extraordinary 19th-century stories of Mormon founder Joseph Smith were accepted as gospel fact within a few short years.
There was plenty of time for the legend of the resurrection of Jesus to evolve.
We do know that people regularly see deceased relatives and friends in dreams and visions. My own grandmother swore to me that she regularly saw my dead grandfather entering the house, smiling and waving at her, often accompanied by other dead relatives, opening and closing drawers. Should I have dug up my grandfather's grave to prove she was only dreaming or hallucinating in her grief? Would that have made any difference?
Yet some Christians insist that is exactly what would have happened if the story of Jesus were false. If the tomb were not empty, detractors could have easily silenced the rumors by producing the body. But this assumes that they cared enough to do such a thing--they didn't do it when Herod heard rumors that John the Baptist had been raised from the dead. It was a crime to rob a grave, and who would have known where to find it? (Jesus's empty tomb was never venerated by early Christians, which is another evidence it did not exist.) Also, it was at least seven weeks after the burial before the resurrection was first preached during Pentecost. By the time anyone might have cared to squelch the story, two or three months would have passed, and what happens to a dead body in that climate for that period of time? The body of Lazarus was "stinking" after only four days. If someone had had the gumption to locate and illegally dig up the decayed body of Jesus and parade it through the streets, would the disciples have believed the unrecognizable rotting skeleton was really their Lord and Savior? I don't think so, any more than my grandmother would have been convinced she was deluded.
During one of my debates, Greg Boyd offered the simple argument that the resurrection must have happened because otherwise we have no explanation for the birth and tremendous growth of the Christian Church. Where there's smoke, there's fire, he insisted. But this argument can be equally applied to the "smoke" of other religions, such as Islam, with hundreds of millions of good people believing that the illiterate Muhammad miraculously wrote the Koran.
It can be applied to the "smoke" of Mormonism, with millions of moral and intelligent individuals believing the angel Moroni gave Joseph Smith gold tablets inscribed with the Book of Mormon. "Why should non-Mormons find the story hard to believe?" Robert J. Miller asks. "After all, it is no more plausible than dozens of stories in the Bible (for example, Jonah and the whale) that many Christians believe with no difficulty at all. The difference has very little to do with the stories themselves and a great deal to do with whether one approaches them as an insider or an outsider. Putting it a bit crudely perhaps, stories about our miracles are easy to believe because they're true; stories about their miracles are easy to dismiss because they're far-fetched and fictitious."
It could also be applied to the Moonies, Jehovah's Witnesses, and many other successful religious movements. If smoke is evidence of fire, are they all true?
So what did happen?
If the story is not true, then how did it originate? We don't really know, but we can make some good guesses, based on what happened with other legends and religious movements, and what we know about human nature.
Assuming that the New Testament is somewhat reliable, Robert Price offers one sensible scenario. Peter's state of mind is the key. The disciples had expected Jesus to set up a kingdom on earth, and this did not happen. He was killed. They then expected Jesus to return, and this did not happen. Nothing was going right, and this created a cognitive dissonance. Peter, who had promised loyalty to Jesus and then denied him publicly a few hours before the crucifixion, must have been feeling horrible. (The day after "Good Friday" is called "Black Sabbath," the day the disciples were in mourning and shock.)
Imagine you had a horrible argument with a spouse or loved one where you said some unpleasant things you later regretted, but before you had a chance to apologize and make up, the person died. Picture your state of mind: grief, regret, shock, embarrassment, sadness, a desperate wish to bring the person back and make things right. That's how Peter must have felt.
Believing in God and the survival of the soul, Peter prays to Jesus: "I'm sorry. Forgive me." (Or something like that.) Then Peter gets an answer: "I'm here. I forgive you." (Or something like that.) Then Peter triumphantly tells his friends, "I talked with Jesus! He is not dead! I am forgiven," and his friends say, "Peter talked with Jesus? Peter met Jesus? He's alive! It's a spiritual kingdom!" (Or something like that.) Paul then lists Peter as the first person to whom Christ "appeared."
We don't need to know exactly what happened, only that things like this do happen. Look at the 19th-century Millerites, who evolved into the Seventh Day Adventists when the world did not end as they had predicted. Or the Jehovah's Witnesses, whose church rebounded after the failed prophecies of Charles Russell and Joseph Rutherford that the world would end in 1914, oops, they meant 1925. (They got creative and said Jesus actually returned to earth "spiritually.")
Robert Price elaborates: "When a group has staked everything on a religious belief, and 'burned their bridges behind them,' only to find this belief disconfirmed by events, they may find disillusionment too painful to endure. They soon come up with some explanatory rationalization, the plausibility of which will be reinforced by the mutual encouragement of fellow-believers in the group. In order to increase further the plausibility of their threatened belief, they may engage in a massive new effort at proselytizing. The more people who can be convinced, the truer it will seem. In the final analysis, then, a radical disconfirmation of belief may be just what a religious movement needs to get off the ground."
There have been other plausible scenarios explaining the origin of the legend, but we don't need to describe them all. The fact that they exist shows that the historicity of the bodily resurrection of Jesus cannot be taken as a given.
The legend idea is respectful
It is respectful of the humanity of the early Christians.
We do know that the human race possesses an immense propensity to create, believe, and propagate falsehood. So, what makes the early Christians exempt? Weren't they just people? Did they never make mistakes? Were they so superhuman that they always resisted the temptations of exaggeration and rhetoric? Did they have perfect memories? Given the discrepancies in their accounts, why not treat those early believers like ourselves, not as cartoon characters, but as real human beings with normal human fears, desires and limitations? The fact that my grandmother was hallucinating did not make me love or respect her any less.
The legend idea is respectful of the historical method. We are not required to jettison natural regularity that makes history work. We can take the New Testament accounts as reports of what people sincerely believed to be true, not what is necessarily true. We can honor the question, "Do you believe everything you read?"
The legend idea is respectful of theology. If Jesus bodily ascended into physical clouds, then we are presented with a spatially limited flat-earth God sitting on a material throne of human size, with a right and left hand. If Jesus physically levitated into the sky, where is his body now? Does he sometimes need a haircut? If the bodily resurrection is viewed as a legendary embellishment, then believers are free to view their god as a boundless spiritual being, not defined in human dimensions as the pagan gods were.
Bible scholars conclude: "On the basis of a close analysis of all the resurrection reports, [we] decided that the resurrection of Jesus was not perceived initially to depend on what happened to his body. The body of Jesus probably decayed as do all corpses. The resurrection of Jesus was not an event that happened on the first Easter Sunday; it was not an event that could have been captured by a video camera. . . . [We] conclude that it does not seem necessary for Christians to believe the literal veracity of any of the later appearance narratives."
Finally, the legend idea is respectful of the freedom to believe. If the resurrection of Jesus were proved as a blunt fact of history, then we would have no choice, no room for faith. You can't have the freedom to believe if you do not have the freedom not to believe.
1 Losing Faith In Faith: From Preacher to Atheist, by Dan Barker, FFRF, Inc., 1992
2 I Corinthians 15:17
3 "His Fleece Was White As Snow," by Dan Barker, Manna Music, Inc., 1978
4 Including the Westar Institute, Santa Rosa, California, with 70+ bible scholars and many books and publications
5 The Daily Telegraph, London, July 31, 2002
6 "Americans' Bible Knowledge Is In the Ballpark, But Often Off Base," July 12, 2000, Barna Research
7 Did Jesus Rise From The Dead? The Resurrection Debate, Gary Habermas and Antony Flew, ed. Terry L. Miethe, Harper & Row, 1987. Flew's remarks were inspired by David Hume's First Enquiry
8 'Of Miracles,' pp.115-116
9 Including John Allegro, G. A. Wells, Michael Martin (who leans towards Wells's view), Timothy Freke & Peter Gandy (The Jesus Mysteries), Robert Price (Deconstructing Jesus), Frank Zindler (The Jesus The Jews Never Knew), Earl Doherty (The Jesus Puzzle), and others.
10 Philo of Alexandria (20 BCE-50 CE) wrote in careful detail about that region in that period of history. So did Justus of Tiberius, and 40 other historians.
11 See "The Formation of the New Testament Canon" by Richard Carrier, www.infidels.org/library/modern/richard_carrier/NTcanon.html, especially note 6.
12 Including Suetonius, Twelve Caesars, 112 CE; Pliny the Younger, 112 CE; Tacitus, Annals,Annals, 117 CE, and scattered other references to a "wise king" or "hymn to Christ."
13 For example, Jesus allowed for divorce (Matthew 5:31-32) while Paul did not (I Corinthians 7:10-11).
14 Albert Schweitzer wrote: "There is nothing more negative than the result of the critical study of the life of Jesus. . . . The historical Jesus will be to our time a stranger and an enigma." The Quest of the Historical Jesus, MacMillan 1954.
15 See Barbara Walker, The Woman's Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets, pages 663-665, Harper San Francisco 1983.
16 Twelve Caesars, 112 CE. Here is all he said. The emperor Claudius "banished the Jews from Rome, since they had made a commotion because of Chrestus," and during the time of Nero "punishments were also inflicted on the Christians, a sect professing a new and mischievous religious belief."
17 First Apology, ch. xxiv
18 There was a Judas the Christ, a Theudas the Christ, and an Egyptian Jew Messiah, among others.
19 See for example The Passover Plot: A New Interpretation of the Life and Death of Jesus, by Hugh Schonfield
20 Matthew 28:11-15
21 See "Historical Evidence and the Empty Tomb Story: A Reply to William Lane Craig," by Jeffery Jay Lowder, 2001. www.infidels.org/library/modern/jeff_lowder/empty.html
22 "Thomas" and "Didymus" both mean "twin." Many early Christians believed Jesus had an identical twin brother. See The Jesus Mysteries: Was the "Original Jesus" a Pagan God? by Timothy Freke and Peter Gandy, pages 117-118. Although some early Christians and modern scholars conclude that Thomas must have been crucified in Jesus' place, the authors say no, "the Gnostics invented the tradition of Jesus' twin brother as an allegory for the ancient Daemon/eidolon doctrine."
23 The verses from Mark 16:9-20 are included here for those who think Mark's finale is authentic. Even though they are not authentic, they do show a contradictory story from whoever added them, most likely a Christian.
24 Culver H. Nelson was Founding minister of the Church of the Beatitudes, Phoenix, Arizona.
25 New English Bible Companion to the New Testament, Oxford University Press, 1988
26 The First Coming: How the Kingdom of God Became Christianity, by Thomas Sheehan, Random House, 1986, p. 97
27 The Acts of Jesus: What Did Jesus Really Do?, edited by Robert W. Funk and The Jesus Seminar, Polebridge Press, 1998
28 "Leave No Stone Unturned," from Losing Faith In Faith (see note 1). Also online here
29 More Than A Carpenter, by Josh McDowell, Tyndale House, 1987
30 There was also an appearance story in a lost book known as the Gospel of the Hebrews, probably written in the mid 2nd-century. We find a few quotes from this book in the writings of others. The appearance story was quoted by Jerome. Since it is not a complete resurrection account, it can't be compared with the others.
31 Except perhaps for Peter, which might have been later than John.
32 Matthew 27:52-53. "And the graves were opened; and many bodies of the saints which slept arose, And came out of the graves after his resurrection, and went into the holy city, and appeared unto many."
33 John 21:1-14
34 The crucifixion is put at the year 30, though it was probably in the late 20s.
35 Romans 13:11
36 Ephesians 5:14
37 Matthew 8:24-25
38 I Corinthians 15:50
39 Acts 16:9-10. Horama is from the same verb as ophthe.
40 Matthew 17:1-3
41 Matthew 26:69-75, Mark 14:66-72
42 Romans 3:4,7
43 See "Did Paul's Men Hear a Voice?" by Dan Barker. www.infidels.org/library/magazines/tsr/1994/1/1voice94.html
44 Galatians 1:12-16
45 Regional Model Life Tables and Stable Populations, A. Coale and P. Demeny, 2nd ed., 1983. This represents statistically exact results for third world countries in the 19th/early 20th century with living conditions essentially the same as those in ancient Rome. Thanks to Richard Carrier for this data.
46 Although names of various Gospels had been loosely assigned to the books by tradition in the early and mid 2nd-century, they were first formally attached to all of them by Irenaeus in 180.
47 John 21:25
48 John 20:30-31
49 See note 43
50 For one source, see "The 'Elian Gonzalez' Religious Movement" at www.religioustolerance.org/elian.htm
51 Matthew 14:1-2
52 John 11:17,39
53 The Jesus Seminar and its Critics, Robert J. Miller, Polebridge Press, 1999, p. 134
54 Beyond Born Again, by Robert M. Price. Section II--The Evangelical Apologists: Are They Reliable? Chapter 6: "Guarding An Empty Tomb." (Online here) See also When Prophecy Fails: A Social and Psychological Study, by Leon Festinger, Harpercollins College Div, June 1964
55 The Acts of Jesus: What Did Jesus Really Do?, edited by Robert W. Funk and The Jesus Seminar, Polebridge Press, 1998, p. 533
By Dan Barker
A version of this "Pagan Pulpit" commentary ran on Freethought Radio on August 12, 2006.
The opposition to gay rights is orchestrated mainly by so-called bible-believing Christians. There are no non-religious reasons to be opposed to gay marriage. A modern secular democracy would never base its laws on the worship requirements of the ancient Mayans or Egyptians, so why should we conform to the standards of ritual purity in the three-thousand-year-old commandments of a primitive desert tribe?
However, if you do insist on using the bible as an excuse for hating homosexuals, it doesn't even get you halfway there. Lesbianism, for example, is not mentioned anywhere in Scripture.
You know those Christians who wear those "What Would Jesus Do?" necklaces? I have an answer to that question: "Keep your mouth shut about gays." Jesus never talked about homosexuality at all.
It is true that the Old Testament--the Hebrew scripture--does consider male-to-male sex to be an "abomination," but this appears in the Leviticus "Holiness Code" which is concerned only with religious purity and Jewish national identity, not with what we would consider moral behavior:
"If a man also lie with mankind, as he lieth with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination: they shall surely be put to death; their blood shall be upon them." (Leviticus 20:13)
That word "abomination" means "unclean, for religious purposes," and it is used to describe many other things that we do not consider to be crimes, or even (if you are religious) sins. Menstruation, giving birth, eating the meat of certain animals whose characteristics seemed "abnormal," and so on, were somehow thought to sully the purity of the holiness of God.
The verses just before and after that disapproval of homosexuality command the same punishment for a man who has sex with his daughter-in-law or mother-in-law, because "they have wrought confusion; their blood shall be upon them."
In that same Holiness Code, disobeying your parents was an "abomination" that threatened the stability of Jewish identity, an act which merited the death penalty. Do modern anti-gay Christians stone their sons to death for refusing to take out the trash? Such an outrageous thought is no less preposterous than denying gays the freedom to marry.
Modern homophobic Christians pick-and-choose their moral issues. They would never imagine that the Old Testament death penalty for adultery should be applied in today's world, yet they insist that the Jewish ritual "uncleanliness" of male homosexuality should be made into law.
Probably the most important religious ritual in the bible was circumcision. No uncircumcised male was worthy to worship god. Yet we don't see today's right-wing Christians lobbying to deny the rights of uncircumcised men to get married or adopt children or join the military. And why not? It is because we all know this is not a moral issue; it was only a matter of religious identity.
The same is true with homosexuality. The ancient Israelites and the Apostle Paul and modern right-wing Christians are free to set up their little religious regulations to show how "pure" they are, but in America, they are not free--or they should not be free--to insist that the rest of us must follow their barbaric rules.
Vol. 23 No. 2 - Published by the Freedom From Religion Foundation, Inc. - March 2006
What the Bible-Belt Media Didn't Tell You about Italian Lawsuit
By Dan Barker
The question of the historical existence of Jesus has hit the news with the recent, intriguing lawsuit in Italy by Luigi Cascioli, who is suing a priest, Rev. Enrico Righi, over his published assertion that "Jesus did indeed exist." Such a claim, Cascioli says, is a deception, an "abuse of popular belief," which is against Italian law. The lawsuit refreshingly demands that Righi prove that Jesus existed.
In his defense, Righi and obliging media have trotted out many alleged evidences for Jesus, long ago discounted, yet which continue to pepper the credulous writings of conservative religious authors and scholars.
According to the Associated Press, Righi "cited many known observers, including nonChristian ones, who have written about the existence of Jesus, such as the Jewish historian Flavius Josephus, considered by scholars to be the most important non-Christian source on Christ's existence."
Here is the paragraph that currently appears in The Antiquities of the Jews, written by Josephus around 95 C.E.:
"Now, there was about this time, Jesus, a wise man, if it be lawful to call him a man, for he was a doer of wonderful works--a teacher of such men as receive the truth with pleasure. He drew over to him both many of the Jews, and many of the Gentiles. He was [the] Christ; and when Pilate, at the suggestion of the principal men amongst us, had condemned him to the cross, those that loved him at the first did not forsake him, for he appeared to them alive again the third day, as the divine prophets had foretold these and ten thousand other wonderful things concerning him; and the tribe of Christians, so named for him are not extinct to this day."
If this is the strongest and earliest extra-biblical evidence for the historical Jesus, then the scholarship is on the shakiest grounds. That passage from Josephus has been shown conclusively to be a forgery, and even conservative scholars admit it has been tampered with. But even were it historical, it dates from more than six decades after the supposed death of Jesus.
The Associated Press chose to omit the fact that scholars have largely discounted the Josephus paragaph as a later interpolation. The passage, although widely quoted by believers today, did not show up in the writings of Josephus until centuries after his death, at the beginning of the fourth century. Thoroughly dishonest church historian Eusebius is credited as the real author. The passage is grossly out of context, a clear hint that it was inserted at a later time.
All scholars agree that Josephus, a Jew who never converted to Christianity, would not have called Jesus "the Christ" or "the truth," so the passage must have been doctored by a later Christian--evidence, by the way, that some early believers were in the habit of altering texts to the advantage of their theological agenda. The phrase "to this day" reveals it was written at a later time. Everyone agrees there was no "tribe of Christians" during the time of Josephus--Christianity did not get off the ground until the second century.
If Jesus were truly important to history, then Josephus should have told us something about him. Yet he is completely silent about the supposed miracles and deeds of Jesus. He nowhere quotes Jesus. He adds nothing to the Gospel narratives and tells us nothing that would not have been known by Christians in either the first or fourth centuries. In all of Josephus' voluminous writings, there is nothing about Jesus or Christianity anywhere outside the tiny paragraph cited so blithely by the Associated Press.
This paragraph mentions that Jesus was foretold by the divine prophets, but Josephus does not tell us who those prophets were or what they said. This is religious propaganda, not history. If Jesus had truly been the fulfillment of Jewish prophecy, then Josephus would have been the exact person to confirm it.
And this is the "most important" historical evidence for Jesus!
The other phrase from Josephus that Righi and AP cite concerns James, the so-called "brother of Jesus," and is likewise flimsy. It says that a man named James was stoned to death, which is not mentioned in the bible. Many scholars believe the "brother of Jesus" phrase is a later interpolation, and that Josephus was referring to a different James, possibly the same James that Paul mentions in Acts, who led a sect in Jerusalem. Contradicting Josephus, Hegesippus wrote a history of Christianity in 170 C.E. saying that James, the brother of Jesus, was killed in a riot, not by sentence of a court.
Righi also cited Pliny the Younger, who, in the early second century (112), reported that "Christians were singing a hymn to Christ as to a god." Notice how late this reference is; and notice the absence of the name "Jesus." The passage, if accurate, could have referred to any of the other self-proclaimed "Christs" (messiahs) followed by Jews who thought they had found their anointed one. Pliny's account is not history, since he is only relaying what other people believed. No one doubts that Christianity was in existence by this time. Offering this as proof would be the equivalent of quoting modern Mormons about their beliefs in the historical existence of the Angel Moroni or the miracles of Joseph Smith--doubtless useful for documenting the religious beliefs, but not the actual facts.
Tacitus, another second-century Roman writer who alleged that Christ had been executed by sentence of Pontius Pilate, is likewise cited by Righi. Written some time after 117 C.E., Tacitus' claim is more of the same late, second-hand "history." There is no mention of "Jesus," only "the sect known as Christians" living in Rome being persecuted, and "their founder, one Christus." Tacitus claims no first-hand knowledge of Christianity. No historical evidence exists that Nero persecuted Christians--Nero did persecute Jews, so perhaps Tacitus was confused. There was certainly not a "great crowd" of Christians in Rome around 60 C.E., as Tacitus put it, and, most damning, the term "Christian" was not even in use in the first century. No one in the second century ever quoted this passage of Tacitus. In fact, it appears almost word-for-word in the fourth-century writings of Sulpicius Severus, where it is mixed with other obvious myths. Citing Tacitus, therefore, is highly suspect and adds virtually nothing to the evidence for a historical Jesus.
Such are the straws believers must grasp in order to prop up their myth.
Historians have no evidence of a historic Jesus dating from the early first century, even though many contemporary writers documented the era in great detail. Philo of Alexandria, for example, wrote in depth about early first-century Palestine, naming other self-proclaimed messiahs, yet never once mentioning a man named Jesus. Many other contemporary writers covered that era, yet there is not a single mention of any existence, deeds, or words of a man named Jesus.
Timothy Freke and Peter Gandy, in their book The Jesus Mysteries, explain how the myth and legend of Jesus could easily have arisen without a historical founder. The Jesus story was pressed from the same template as other mythical savior-gods who were killed and resurrected, such as Osiris, Dionysus, Mithra, and Attis.
Early Christians agreed that Christianity offered "nothing different" from paganism. Arguing with pagans around 150 C.E., Justin Martyr said: "When we say that the Word [Jesus], who is the first born of God, was produced without sexual union, and that he, Jesus Christ, our teacher, was crucified and died, and rose again, and ascended into heaven; we propound nothing different from what you believe regarding those whom you esteem sons of Jupiter (Zeus)." Fourth-century Christian scholar Fermicus, in attempting to establish the uniqueness of Christianity, met at every turn by pagan precedents to the story of Jesus, in exasperation concluded: "The Devil has his Christs!"
The Gospels are not history; they are religious propaganda, contradictory, exaggerated, and mythical. The earliest Christian writings, the letters of Paul, are silent about the man Jesus: Paul, who never met Jesus, fails to mention a single deed or saying of Jesus (except for the ritualistic Last Supper formula), and sometimes contradicts what Jesus supposedly said. To Paul, Jesus was a heavenly disembodied Christ figure, not a man of flesh and blood.
There is serious doubt that Jesus ever existed. It is impossible to prove he was a historical figure. It is much more plausible to consider the Jesus character to be the result of myth-making, a human process that is indeed historically documented.
In covering Luigi Cascioli's fascinating lawsuit, the media need to stop acting like a megaphone for religion, and start doing some balanced reporting.
Here are a few references relating to the historical Jesus:
- The Jesus Mysteries: Was the "Original Jesus" a Pagan God? by Timothy Freke & Peter Gandy (1999, Three Rivers Press)
- Did Jesus Exist? by G. A. Wells (1975, Pemberton)
- The Jesus Puzzle: Challenging the existence of an historical Jesus by Earl Doherty (1999, Canadian Humanist Association)
- Deconstructing Jesus by Robert Price (2000, Prometheus Books)
- The Jesus Legend by G. A. Wells (1996, Open Court)
- The Historical Evidence for Jesus by G. A. Wells (1982, Prometheus Books)
- Jesus in History and Myth by Joseph R. Hoffman and G. A. Larue (1986, Prometheus Books)
- Jesus: Myth or History? by A. Robertson (1949, Watts)
- Pagan Christs by J. M. Robertson (1911, London)
- The Quest of the Historical Jesus by Albert Schweitzer
- The Christ Conspiracy: The Greatest Story Ever Sold by Acharya S (1999, Adventures Unlimited)
- Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why by Bart D. Ehrman (2005, Harper San Francisco) (to document gospel discrepancies)
By Dan Barker
[This article was first published in the Skeptical Review, 1994.]
In the 9th chapter of Acts, Luke tells the story of the conversion of Saul, saying that "the men which journeyed with him stood speechless, hearing a voice, but seeing no man." In the 22nd chapter of the same book, Luke quotes Paul's own words regarding the same experience: "And they that were with me saw indeed the light, and were afraid; but they heard not the voice of him that spake unto me."
There is an apparent contradiction here: Luke says "hearing a voice," but Paul says, "They heard not the voice." If the translation is correct, then Luke has made a mistake. (We can assume that Paul, the primary source, is more trustworthy.)
There are two approaches that defenders of the bible have used in an attempt to clear up this discrepancy. The first approach claims that the word "hear" should be translated "understand" in Acts 22:9, meaning that although the men heard the voice, they did not hear (understand) the voice. The second defense claims that the word "voice" should really be translated "sound" in Acts 9:7, meaning that the men heard something, but did not know it was a voice.
"Hear" or "Understand"?
I play professional piano part-time. Although I sometimes use electronic keyboards in jazz bands, I much prefer the acoustic piano, especially for solo work. Nothing matches the beauty of physically produced tones resonating in a real, acoustic piano of quality wood. The overtones mix in the air like no computer has been able to duplicate.
The word �acoustic� comes from the Greek word akouo (pronounced "a-koo-oh�), meaning "to hear." (I pronounce Greek the way a contemporary Grecian would say it. The old, scholarly pronunciation was just a guess.) To hear physically, acoustically. Both Acts 9:7 and Acts 22:9 use akouo.
Akouo does not mean "understand." New Testament Greek possesses other words for "understand." The main one is suniemi (sin-EE-i-mee), which is "to understand in the sense of putting things together� (the word means "to send together"). There are also noeo (no-EH-oh), from the word for "mind"; ginosko (gi-NO-sko), which means "to know"; and others. These verbs have noun counterparts: for example sunesis (understanding), related to suniemi. The word akouo has no noun counterpart that works as a synonym for "understanding."
However, this does not mean that "hear" cannot be rendered loosely as "understand" in some special cases. We do it in English in the informal phrase, "I hear you." We also use "see" sometimes in this manner: "Do you see what I mean?" Words denoting physical senses can sometimes be interpreted in a "mental" way, poetically or loosely.
But the only way to do this is by context. It can't be done by grammar. Akouo always means "hear" at the literal level, but it might sometimes figuratively be understood as "understand," depending on its usage in a particular passage.
Akouo never means "not to hear."
There is only one instance where the King James Version (KJV) translates akouo as "understand." First Corinthians 14:2: "For he that speaketh in an unknown tongue speaketh not unto men, but unto God: for no man understandeth (akouo) him; howbeit in the spirit he speaketh mysteries." The New International Version (NIV) puts it this way: "Indeed, no one understands him; he utters mysteries with his spirit." It seems, in context, that "understand" can be used here because, although there is obviously some physical hearing involved, there is an ambiguity about how a "mystery" spoken by a "spirit" could be perceived. In any event, there is no indication that nothing is heard.
The Greek in Acts 22:9 is: ten de phonen ouk ekousan (EE-koo-san, aorist [past tense] of akouo, 3rd person plural). The KJV and the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) say that the men did not "hear" the voice, but the NIV and Living Bible (LB, a paraphrase, not a translation) say that the men did not "understand" the voice. On what grounds do the NIV and LB use such a translation? The passage is not poetic. In fact, in the parallel Acts 9:7, telling the same story, the NIV and LB do use "hear," from the verb akouo with the same object. There is nothing in the context of either Acts 9:7 or Acts 22:9 to warrant a looser, informal, or poetic translation of akouo.
There are a few places in the New Testament where akouo (hear) and suniemi (understand) act as synonyms, but the connection is explicit. In Matthew 13:13, Jesus reportedly said: "Therefore speak I to them in parables: because they seeing see not; and hearing (akouo) they hear (akouo) not, neither do they understand (suniemi)." If the second occurrence of akouo means "understand," all by itself, then it would not have been necessary for Luke to add, "neither do they understand." This underscores the fact that grammar is not enough to determine when akouo might be translated loosely.
The NIV and the LB wish us to think that Paul's men "heard but did not understand" the voice. But "hear" and "understand" are coupled together all through the New Testament as a contrast of two different words. Matthew 13:23 says, "But he that received good seed into the good ground is he that heareth (akouo) the word, and understandeth (suniemi) it." Matthew 15:10: "Hear (akouo) and understand (suniemi)." Mark 4:12: "and hearing they may hear (akouo), and not understand (suniemi)." Notice that Mark did not use ouk akouo (�not hear�) when he wanted to say "not understand." For similar constructions see also Matthew 13:15; Matthew 13:19; Mark 7:14; Luke 8:10; Acts 28:26,27; Romans 15:21.
There is nothing in Acts 22:9--nothing grammatical, contextual, or explicit--to indicated that akouo should be translated anything other than "hear." In fact, the same words (often the very same phrase: ouk ekousan) occur throughout the New Testament, but neither the NIV nor the LB use "not understand" in those instances. Look at Matthew 13:17 (NIV): "Many prophets and righteous people longed to see what you see, but did not see it, and to hear what you hear, but did not hear (ouk ekousan) it." If Acts 22:9 should be translated "not understand," why not here?
Look at Mark 8:18 (NIV): "Do you have eyes but fail to see, and ears but fail to hear?" The phrase "fail to hear" is ouk akouete: "You do not hear." Again, if Acts 22:9 should be "not understand," then why not here?
Other examples are John 5:37 (NIV): "You have neither heard his voice nor seen his form"; and Romans 10:18 (NIV): "Did they not hear (ouk ekousan)?" (See also Mark 6:11, Luke 10:24, Luke 16:31, John 10:8, Acts 9:12, Romans 15:21.) Why is the NIV not consistent? Why does it use �understand� only in Acts 22:9?
If Luke had wanted Acts 22:9 to mean "not understand," he should have said so, either explicitly (with suniemi or other verb for �understand�) or contextually. If he had wanted to contrast the two meanings, why didn't he follow the New Testament practice of pairing akouo and suniemi?
"Voice" or "Sound"?
I once brought up this contradiction on an Arizona radio show where I was debating James White, a self-styled Christian apologist. White immediately retorted that since phone (�voice�) is in two different cases in these verses, it was meant to be understood differently: "voice" in one in stance, but "sound" in the other.
He is right about the two different cases, but he is wrong about what this means. Greek scholars who have more than a superficial knowledge of the language would never use this argument.
Acts 9:7 has tes phones (tees fo-NEES) and Acts 22:9 has ten phonen (teen fo-NEEN) for "the voice." The first is in the genitive case, and the second is in the accusative.
Although the KJV and the NRSV use "voice" in both verses, the NIV and the LB translate phones as "sound" in Acts 9:7. They appear to be suggesting that the genitive case should change the meaning of "voice." A number of Christian apologists, such as Gleason Archer, have used this argument.
But they are wrong. In this instance, the genitive case does not change the meaning of the word in any way.
In many inflected languages, such as Greek, there is a flexibility of case usage (declension). Some verbs take their direct objects in more than just the accusative case. This is explicitly true of akouo, which can take either the accusative or the genitive., with no change in meaning.
If the apologists are right and the genitive cases does change the meaning here, then this would create dozens of contradictions elsewhere in the New Testament where such flexibility of case is common.
For example, the writers of Matthew and Luke both relate Jesus's parable of the wise man who built his house upon a rock. Matthew 7:24 quotes Jesus: "[W]hosoever heareth these sayings (tous logous) of mine, and doeth them, I will liken him unto a wise man." Luke 6:47, telling the same story, quotes Jesus: "Whosoever cometh to me, and heareth my sayings (ton logon), and doeth them, I will shew you to whom he is like." Both writers related the same speech, but they used different cases for �sayings,� the object of akouo. Matthew used the accusative and Luke used the genitive.
This is not a contradiction. There is a tiny inexactness about what declension Jesus might actually have used when he spoke these words in history (if he indeed spoke them in Greek, or spoke them at all), but there is no discrepancy. Matthew and Luke, each reconstructing the scene from memory (or perhaps from notes, or translating from Aramaic), can be allowed some personal leeway in their choice of declensions. The Greek allows for such flexibility.
Another example is when Matthew and Mark each report the appearance of Jesus before the high priest. Matthew 26:65 quotes the high priest: "Behold, now ye have heard his blasphemy (blasphemian)." Mark 14:64 reports the story, quoting the high priest: "Ye have heard the blasphemy (blasphemias)." The writer of Matthew used the accusative for the object of akouo and the writer of Mark used the genitive. Again, there is no contradiction--just an impreciseness about what actual word was spoken by the high priest.
Closer to home are Acts 9:4, Acts 22:7, and Acts 26:14, the story of Saul's conversion itself. (It is told three different times.) Acts 9:4: "And he fell to the earth and heard a voice (phonen) saying unto him, Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me?" Acts 22:7: "And I fell unto the ground, and heard a voice (phones) saying unto me." Acts 26:14: "And when we were all fallen to the earth, I heard a voice (phonen) speaking unto me." Notice the different cases. Paul himself, telling the same story, uses two different cases. They cannot have meant two different things. In fact, the NIV and the LB agree, translating both the accusative and the genitive as "voice" in all three instances.
If the defenders of Acts 9:7 and Acts 22:9 are correct when they say that the difference in case changes the meaning of the word, then the above examples would show Paul contradicting himself. They have shot themselves in the foot.
To be fair, there are a few places where phone can allowably be translated as "sound," but this is determined by context rather than case. Phone is used 140 times in the New Testament. It is translated "voice" 131 times in the KJV. The other 9 times it is translated "sound" or "noise," but each of these is clearly figurative, referring to something that is not a person: "the noise (phone) of thunder," "sound (phone) of wind," "wings," etc. (Notice that although the KJV translates Revelation 6:1 as "sound of thunder" (phone, dative case), the NRSV, NIV, and LB use "voice." Here, where there actually is a poetic justification for using �sound,� they don�t take it.)
Neither thunder nor wind actually have a "voice," so it is permissible to use "sound�--even though the literal �voice� would better preserve the original poetic imagery, closer to the stylistic literary intention of the writer. But in Acts 9:7 there is no such context. In fact, Luke goes out of his way to insist that it was a person: "hearing a voice, but seeing no man." (My emphasis) If Paul's men thought they had heard some impersonal noise like thunder or wind, then it would not have been necessary to add the phrase "but seeing no man."
Why should the NIV and the LB use "sound" in this instance? There is no linguistic or contextual reason. It appears that they have simply wanted to paper over a troublesome discrepancy.
Why Do the Translations Disagree?
The NIV and LB translators cannot claim a new, more advanced understand of Greek. The NRSV was published after the NIV and LB, and it uses "voice." (From what I can tell, the NRSV seems to be the most popular translation among scholars.)
The motives of the NIV and LB translators are made clear in the preface to each book. The NIV, translated by a team of evangelical scholars (instigated by the National Association of Evangelicals), is introduced with these words: "We offer this version of the Bible to him in whose name and for whose glory it has been made. We pray that it will lead many into a better understanding of the Holy Scriptures and a fuller knowledge of Jesus Christ the incarnate Word, of whom the Scriptures so faithfully testify."
If there is a contradiction in the New Testament, then it could not "faithfully testify" anything.
The NIV team was extremely selective in choosing its scholars: "[T]he translators were united in their commitment to the authority and infallibility of the Bible as God's Word in written form. They believe that it contains the divine answer to the deepest needs of humanity, that it sheds light on our path in a dark world, and that it sets forth the way to our eternal well-being." This is not the agenda of a team of objective scholars. This is evangelism.
If there is a contradiction in the Bible, the NIV translators, confessedly committed a priori to infallibility, could never see it! (Some skeptics might be tempted to use the phrase, "There is none so blind as he who will not see," but I would never stoop to such ad hominem tactics.)
The Living Bible does not claim to be a strict translation. It is a paraphrase by Dr. Kenneth Taylor, who admits in his preface: "[W]hen the Greek or Hebrew is not clear, then the theology of the translator is his guide, along with his sense of logic. . . . The theological lodestar in this book has been a rigid evangelical position."
What if an atheistic or skeptical organization were to translate the bible, putting together a team of staunch materialists, systematically excluding conservative or evangelical scholars, announcing a "rigid skeptical position, "claiming to be "united in our commitment to the fallibility of the bible," and advertising the "hope that this translation will lead many astray from faith into a solid doubt of the reliability of Scriptures"? The evangelicals would sream! Such prejudice clearly would taint the objectivity of the process.
One of the most popular evangelical verses is Revelation 3:20 (I used this often in my own evangelism), where Jesus is quoted as saying: "Behold, I stand at the door and knock: if any man hear my voice (phones), and open the door, I will come into him." The genitive case is used here, yet the NIV uses "voice" and the LB says "hears me calling." Neither uses "knocking" or "sound." They are not consistent. They only invoke the phony "genitive-case argument" ad hoc, where it suits their inerrancy agenda.
Acts 9:7 and Acts 22:9 are contradictory. In their confessed missionary zeal, the translators of the NIV and the Living Bible, and other evangelical apologists, have dishonestly tampered with the meaning of scripture, using a specious argument in order to deceive the readers and disguise an embarrassing discrepancy.
Debate between Dan Barker and John C. Rankin
Living Rock Church
March 5, 2006
Dan Barker debated John C. Rankin on the topic "Is the Bible full of errors and deceit?" at Living Rock Church, Killingworth, Connecticut, on Sunday, March 5, 2006. This was the first of 3 debates in a row on the same topic, including a debate before the high-school students at The Master's School on Monday morning March 6, and before the seminarians at the same school the evening of March 6.
John C. Rankin and Dan Barker at The Master's School in Simsbury, Connecticut, March 6, 2006. Rankin is a former agnostic who is now President of the Theological Education Institute and the Mars Hill Society. Barker is a former minister who is now co-president of the Freedom From Religion Foundation.
Jesus has been held in high regard by Christians and non-Christians alike. Regardless of whether he existed in history, or whether he was divine, many have asserted that the New Testament Christ character was the highest example of moral living. Many believe that his teachings, if truly understood and followed, would make this a better world.
Is this true? Does Jesus merit the widespread adoration he has received? Let's look at what he said and did.
Was Jesus Peaceable And Compassionate?
The birth of Jesus was heralded with "Peace on Earth," yet Jesus said, "Think not that I am come to send peace: I came not to send peace but a sword." (Matthew 10:34) "He that hath no sword, let him sell his garment, and buy one." (Luke 22:36) "But those mine enemies, which would not that I should reign over them, bring hither, and slay them before me." (Luke 19:27. In a parable, but spoken of favorably.)
The burning of unbelievers during the Inquisition was based on the words of Jesus: "If a man abide not in me, he is cast forth as a branch, and is withered; and men gather them, and cast them into the fire, and they are burned." (John 15:6)
Jesus looked at his critics "with anger" (Mark 3:5), and attacked merchants with a whip (John 2:15). He showed his respect for life by drowning innocent animals (Matthew 8:32). He refused to heal a sick child until he was pressured by the mother (Matthew 15:22-28).
The most revealing aspect of his character was his promotion of eternal torment. "The Son of man [Jesus himself] shall send forth his angels, and they shall gather out of his kingdom all things that offend, and them which do iniquity; And shall cast them into a furnace of fire: there shall be wailing and gnashing of teeth." (Matthew 13:41-42) "And if thy hand offend thee, cut it off: it is better for thee to enter into life maimed, than having two hands to go into hell, into the fire that never shall be quenched." (Mark 9:43)
Is this nice? Is it exemplary to make your point with threats of violence? Is hell a kind, peaceful idea?
Did Jesus Promote "Family Values"?
"If any man come to me, and hate not his father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren, and sisters, yea, and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple." (Luke 14:26)
"I am come to set a man at variance against his father, and the daughter against her mother, and the daughter in law against her mother in law. And a man's foes shall be they of his own household." (Matthew 10:35-36)
When one of his disciples requested time off for his father's funeral, Jesus rebuked him: "Let the dead bury their dead." (Matthew 8:22)
Jesus never used the word "family." He never married or fathered children. To his own mother, he said, "Woman, what have I to do with thee?" (John 2:4)
What Were His Views On Equality And Social Justice?
Jesus encouraged the beating of slaves: "And that servant [slave], which knew his lord's will, and prepared not himself, neither did according to his will, shall be beaten with many stripes." (Luke 12:47) He never denounced servitude, incorporating the master-slave relationship into many of his parables.
He did nothing to alleviate poverty. Rather than sell some expensive ointment to help the poor, Jesus wasted it on himself, saying, "Ye have the poor with you always." (Mark 14:3-7)
No women were chosen as disciples or invited to the Last Supper.
What Moral Advice Did Jesus Give?
"There be eunuchs which have made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven's sake. He that is able to receive it, let him receive it." (Matthew 19:12) Some believers, including church father Origen, took this verse literally and castrated themselves. Even metaphorically, this advice is in poor taste.
If you do something wrong with your eye or hand, cut/pluck it off (Matthew 5:29-30, in a sexual context).
Marrying a divorced woman is adultery. (Matthew 5:32)
Don't plan for the future. (Matthew 6:34)
Don't save money. (Matthew 6:19-20)
Don't become wealthy. (Mark 10:21-25)
Sell everything and give it to the poor. (Luke 12:33)
Don't work to obtain food. (John 6:27)
Don't have sexual urges. (Matthew 5:28)
Make people want to persecute you. (Matthew 5:11)
Let everyone know you are better than the rest. (Matthew 5:13-16)
Take money from those who have no savings and give it to rich investors. (Luke 19:23-26)
If someone steals from you, don't try to get it back. (Luke 6:30)
If someone hits you, invite them to do it again. (Matthew 5:39)
If you lose a lawsuit, give more than the judgment. (Matthew 5:40)
If someone forces you to walk a mile, walk two miles. (Matthew 5:41)
If anyone asks you for anything, give it to them without question. (Matthew 5:42)
Is this wise? Is this what you would teach your children?
Was Jesus Reliable?
Jesus told his disciples that they would not die before his second coming: "There be some standing here, which shall not taste of death, till they see the Son of man coming in his kingdom" (Matthew 16:28). "Behold, I come quickly." (Revelation 3:11) It's been 2,000 years, and believers are still waiting for his "quick" return.
He mistakenly claimed that the mustard seed is "the least of all seeds" (Matt. 13:32), and that salt could "lose its savour" (Matthew 5:13).
Jesus said that whoever calls somebody a "fool" shall be in danger of hell fire (Matthew 5:22), yet he called people "fools" himself (Matthew 23:17).
Regarding his own truthfulness, Jesus gave two conflicting opinions: "If I bear witness of myself, my witness is not true" (John 5:31), and "Though I bear record of myself, yet my record is true" (John 8:14).
Was Jesus A Good Example?
He irrationally cursed a fig tree for being fruitless out of season (Matthew 21:18-19, and Mark 11:13-14). He broke the law by stealing corn on the Sabbath (Mark 2:23), and he encouraged his disciples to take a horse without asking permission (Matthew 21).
The "humble" Jesus said that he was "greater than the temple" (Matt 12:6), "greater than Jonah" (Matthew 12:41), and "greater than Solomon" (Matthew 12:42). He appeared to suffer from a dictator's "paranoia" when he said, "He that is not with me is against me" (Matthew 12:30).
Although other verses can be cited that portray Jesus in a different light, they do not erase the disturbing side of his character. The conflicting passages, however, prove that the New Testament is contradictory.
The "Golden Rule" had been said many times by earlier religious leaders. (Confucius: "Do not unto others that you would not have them do unto you.") "Turn the other cheek" encourages victims to invite further violence. "Love thy neighbor" applied only to fellow believers. (Neither the Jews nor Jesus showed much love to foreign religions). A few of the Beatitudes ("Blessed are the peacemakers") are acceptable, but they are all conditions of future reward, not based on respect for human life or values.
On the whole, Jesus said little that was worthwhile. He introduced nothing new to ethics (except hell). He instituted no social programs. Being "omniscient," he could have shared some useful science or medicine, but he appeared ignorant of such things (as if his character were merely the invention of writers stuck in the first century).
Many scholars are doubtful of the historical existence of Jesus. Albert Schweitzer said, "The historical Jesus will be to our time a stranger and an enigma." No first-century writer confirms the Jesus story. The New Testament is internally contradictory and contains historical errors. The story is filled with miracles and other outrageous claims. Consisting mostly of material borrowed from pagan religions, the Jesus story appears to be cut from the same fabric as all other myths and fables.
Why is Jesus so special? It would be more reasonable and productive to emulate real, flesh-and-blood human beings who have contributed to humanity--mothers who have given birth, scientists who have alleviated suffering, social reformers who have fought injustice--than to worship a character of such dubious qualities as Jesus.
These caveats are added to the online version.
I realize that I am treating the New Testament flatly, as if all of the words and deeds of Jesus can be taken at face value. I know there is controversy regarding the authenticity of many of the verses quoted above. The Jesus Seminar, for example, concludes that approximately 85% of the words and actions of Jesus as reported in the New Testament are not authentic -- he never said or did most of those things. This nontract is aimed at the "bible believer" who thinks the entire New Testament is inerrant and inspired.
Since this nontract went online, I have received numerous complaints that I have taken many of these verses "out of context." In one admitted sense (as noted in the paragraph above) that may be true -- in the context of current historical biblical scholarship, most of those verses can be thrown out of the New Testament. But in the other sense (the sense intended by the fundamentalists and evangelicals who think I am misrepresenting Jesus), I am taking nothing out of context. None of those who have accused me of "out of context" have given a specific example, or have explained the "context" to which they refer, or the meanings of the words of the writers or their intended readers that would differ from the face value of the text.
Nontract No. 12. Published by the Freedom From Religion Foundation, Inc., PO Box 750, Madison WI 53701.
By Dan Barker
PAUL SAID, "God is not the author of confusion," (I Corinthians 14:33), yet never has a book produced more confusion than the bible! There are hundreds of denominations and sects, all using the "inspired Scriptures" to prove their conflicting doctrines.
Why do trained theologians differ? Why do educated translators disagree over Greek and Hebrew meanings? Why all the confusion? Shouldn't a document that was "divinely inspired" by an omniscient and omnipotent deity be as clear as possible?
"If the trumpet give an uncertain sound," Paul wrote in I Corinthians 14:8, "who shall prepare himself to the battle? So likewise ye, except ye utter by the tongue words easy to be understood, how shall it be known what is spoken? for ye shall speak into the air." Exactly! Paul should have practiced what he preached. For almost two millennia, the bible has been producing a most "uncertain sound."
The problem is not with human limitations, as some claim. The problem is the bible itself. People who are free of theological bias notice that the bible contains hundreds of discrepancies. Should it surprise us when such a literary and moral mish-mash, taken seriously, causes so much discord? Here is a brief sampling of biblical contradictions.
Should we kill?
Exodus 20:13 "Thou shalt not kill."
Leviticus 24:17 "And he that killeth any man shall surely be put to death."
Exodus 32:27 "Thus sayeth the Lord God of Israel, Put every man his sword by his side, . . . and slay every man his brother, . . . companion, . . . neighbor."
I Samuel 6:19 " . . . and the people lamented because the Lord had smitten many of the people with a great slaughter."
I Samuel 15:2,3,7,8 "Thus saith the Lord . . . Now go and smite Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have, and spare them not; but slay both man and woman, infant and suckling, ox and sheep, camel and ass. . . . And Saul smote the Amalekites . . . and utterly destroyed all the people with the edge of the sword."
Numbers 15:36 "And all the congregation brought him without the camp, and stoned him with stones, and he died; as the Lord commanded Moses."
Hosea 13:16 "they shall fall by the sword: their infants shall be dashed in pieces, and their women with children shall be ripped up."
For a discussion of the defense that the Commandments prohibit only murder, see "Murder, He Wrote", chapter 27 (Losing Faith In Faith: From Preacher To Atheist).
Should we tell lies?
Exodus 20:16 "Thou shalt not bear false witness."
Proverbs 12:22 "Lying lips are an abomination to the Lord."
I Kings 22:23 "The Lord hath put a lying spirit in the mouth of all these thy prophets, and the Lord hath spoken evil concerning thee."
II Thessalonians 2:11 "And for this cause God shall send them strong delusion, that they should believe a lie."
Also, compare Joshua 2:4-6 with James 2:25.
Should we steal?
Exodus 20:15 "Thou shalt not steal."
Leviticus 19:13 "Thou shalt not defraud thy neighbor, neither rob him."
Exodus 3:22 "And ye shall spoil the Egyptians."
Exodus 12:35-36 "And they spoiled [plundered, NRSV] the Egyptians."
Luke 19:29-34 "[Jesus] sent two of his disciples, Saying, Go ye into the village . . . ye shall find a colt tied, whereon yet never man sat: loose him, and bring him hither. And if any man ask you, Why do ye loose him? thus shall ye say unto him, Because the Lord hath need of him. . . . And as they were loosing the colt, the owners thereof said unto them, Why loose ye the colt? And they said, The Lord hath need of him."
I was taught as a child that when you take something without asking for it, that is stealing.
Shall we keep the sabbath?
Exodus 20:8 "Remember the sabbath day to keep it holy."
Exodus 31:15 "Whosoever doeth any work in the sabbath day, he shall surely be put to death."
Numbers 15:32,36 "And while the children of Israel were in the wilderness, they found a man that gathered sticks upon the sabbath day. . . . And all the congregation brought him without the camp, and stoned him with stones, and he died; as the Lord commanded Moses."
Isaiah 1:13 "The new moons and sabbaths, the calling of assemblies, I cannot away with; it is iniquity."
John 5:16 "And therefore did the Jews persecute Jesus and sought to slay him, because he had done these things on the sabbath day."
Colossians 2:16 "Let no man therefore judge you in meat, or in drink, or in respect of an holy-day, or of the new moon, or of the sabbath days."
Shall we make graven images?
Exodus 20:4 "Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven . . . earth . . . water."
Leviticus 26:1 "Ye shall make ye no idols nor graven image, neither rear you up a standing image, neither shall ye set up any image of stone."
Deuteronomy 27:15 "Cursed be the man that maketh any graven or molten image."
Exodus 25:18 "And thou shalt make two cherubims of gold, of beaten work shalt thou make them."
I Kings 7:15,16,23,25 "For he [Solomon] cast two pillars of brass . . . and two chapiters of molten brass . . . And he made a molten sea . . . it stood upon twelve oxen . . . [and so on]"
Are we saved through works?
Ephesians 2:8,9 "For by grace are ye saved through faith . . . not of works."
Romans 3:20,28 "Therefore by the deeds of the law there shall no flesh be justified in his sight."
Galatians 2:16 "Knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law, but by the faith of Jesus Christ."
James 2:24 "Ye see then how that by works a man is justified, and not by faith only."
Matthew 19:16-21 "And, behold, one came and said unto him, Good Master, what good thing shall I do, that I may have eternal life? And he [Jesus] said unto him . . . keep the commandments. . . . The young man saith unto him, All these things have I kept from my youth up: what lack I yet? Jesus said unto him, If thou wilt be perfect, go and sell that thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven."
The common defense here is that "we are saved by faith and works." But Paul said "not of works."
Should good works be seen?
Matthew 5:16 "Let your light so shine before men that they may see your good works."
I Peter 2:12 "Having your conversation honest among the Gentiles: that . . . they may by your good works, which they shall behold, glorify God in the day of visitation."
Matthew 6:1-4 "Take heed that ye do not your alms before men, to be seen of them . . . that thine alms may be in secret."
Matthew 23:3,5 "Do not ye after their [Pharisees'] works. . . . all their works they do for to be seen of men."
Should we own slaves?
Leviticus 25:45-46 "Moreover of the children of the strangers that do sojourn among you, of them shall ye buy, . . . and they shall be your possession . . . they shall be your bondmen forever."
Genesis 9:25 "And he [Noah] said, Cursed be Canaan; a servant of servants shall he be unto his brethren."
Exodus 21:2,7 "If thou buy an Hebrew servant, six years he shall serve: and in the seventh he shall go out free for nothing. . . . And if a man sell his daughter to be a maidservant, she shall not go out as the manservants do."
Joel 3:8 "And I will sell your sons and your daughters into the hand of the children of Judah, and they shall sell them to the Sabeans, to a people far off: for the Lord hath spoken it."
Luke 12:47,48 [Jesus speaking] "And that servant, which knew his lord's will, and prepared not himself, neither did according to his will, shall be beaten with many stripes. But he that knew not, and did commit things worthy of stripes, shall be beaten with few stripes."
Colossians 3:22 "Servants, obey in all things your masters."
Isaiah 58:6 "Undo the heavy burdens . . . let the oppressed go free, . . . break every yoke."
Matthew 23:10 "Neither be ye called Masters: for one is your Master, even Christ."
Pro-slavery bible verses were cited by many churches in the South during the Civil War, and were used by some theologians in the Dutch Reformed Church to justify apartheid in South Africa. There are more pro-slavery verses than cited here.
Does God change his mind?
Malachi 3:6 "For I am the Lord; I change not."
Numbers 23:19 "God is not a man, that he should lie; neither the son of man, that he should repent."
Ezekiel 24:14 "I the Lord have spoken it: it shall come to pass, and I will do it; I will not go back, neither will I spare, neither will I repent."
James 1:17 " . . . the Father of lights, with whom is no variableness, neither shadow of turning."
Exodus 32:14 "And the Lord repented of the evil which he thought to do unto his people."
Genesis 6:6,7 "And it repented the Lord that he had made man on the earth . . . And the Lord said, I will destroy man whom I have created from the face of the earth . . . for it repenteth me that I have made him."
Jonah 3:10 ". . . and God repented of the evil, that he had said that he would do unto them; and he did it not."
See also II Kings 20:1-7, Numbers 16:20-35, Numbers 16:44-50.
See Genesis 18:23-33, where Abraham gets God to change his mind about the minimum number of righteous people in Sodom required to avoid destruction, bargaining down from fifty to ten. (An omniscient God must have known that he was playing with Abraham's hopes for mercy--he destroyed the city anyway.)
Are we punished for our parents' sins?
Exodus 20:5 "For I the Lord thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation." (Repeated in Deuteronomy 5:9)
Exodus 34:6-7 " . . . The Lord God, merciful and gracious, . . . that will by no means clear the guilty; visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children, and upon the children's children, unto the third and to the fourth generation."
I Corinthians 15:22 "For as in Adam all die, . . ."
Ezekiel 18:20 "The son shall not bear the iniquity of the father."
Deuteronomy 24:16 "The fathers shall not be put to death for the children, neither shall the children be put to death for the fathers: every man shall be put to death for his own sin."
Is God good or evil?
Psalm 145:9 "The Lord is good to all."
Deuteronomy 32:4 "a God of truth and without iniquity, just and right is he."
Isaiah 45:7 "I make peace and create evil. I the Lord do all these things." See "Out of Context" for more on Isaiah 45:7.
Lamentations 3:38 "Out of the mouth of the most High proceedeth not evil and good?"
Jeremiah 18:11 "Thus saith the Lord; Behold, I frame evil against you, and devise a device against you."
Ezekiel 20:25,26 "I gave them also statutes that were not good, and judgments whereby they should not live. And I polluted them in their own gifts, in that they caused to pass through the fire all that openeth the womb, that I might make them desolate, to the end that they might know that I am the Lord."
Does God tempt people?
James 1:13 "Let no man say . . . I am tempted of God: for God cannot be tempted with evil, neither tempteth he any man."
Genesis 22:1 "And it came to pass after these things, that God did tempt Abraham."
Is God peaceable?
Romans 15:33 "The God of peace."
Isaiah 2:4 ". . . and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruninghooks: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more."
Exodus 15:3 "The Lord is a man of war."
Joel 3:9-10 "Prepare war, wake up the mighty men, let all the men of war draw near; let them come up: Beat your plowshares into swords, and your pruninghooks into spears: let the weak say, I am strong."
Was Jesus peaceable?
John 14:27 "Peace I leave with you, my peace I give unto you."
Acts 10:36 "The word which God sent unto the children of Israel, preaching peace by Jesus Christ."
Luke 2:14 " . . . on earth peace, good will toward men."
Matthew 10:34 "Think not that I am come to send peace on earth: I came not to send peace, but a sword. For I am come to set a man at variance against his father, and the daughter against her mother, and the daughter in law against her mother in law. And a man's foes shall be they of his own household."
Luke 22:36 "Then said he unto them, . . . he that hath no sword, let him sell his garment, and buy one."
Was Jesus trustworthy?
John 8:14 "Though I bear record of myself, yet my record is true."
John 5:31 "If I bear witness of myself, my witness is not true."
"Record" and "witness" in the above verses are the same Greek word (martyria).
Shall we call people names?
Matthew 5:22 "Whosoever shall say Thou fool, shall be in danger of hellfire." [Jesus speaking]
Matthew 23:17 "Ye fools and blind." [Jesus speaking]
Psalm 14:1 "The fool hath said in his heart, There is no God."
Has anyone seen God?
John 1:18 "No man hath seen God at any time."
Exodus 33:20 "Thou canst not see my face: for there shall no man see me, and live."
John 6:46 "Not that any man hath seen the Father, save he which is of God [Jesus], he hath seen the Father."
I John 4:12 "No man hath seen God at any time."
Genesis 32:30 "For I have seen God face to face."
Exodus 33:11 "And the Lord spake unto Moses face to face, as a man speaketh unto his friend."
Isaiah 6:1 "In the year that king Uzziah died I saw also the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up, and his train filled the temple."
Job 42:5 "I have heard of thee by the hearing of the ear: but now mine eye seeth thee."
How many Gods are there?
Deuteronomy 6:4 "The Lord our God is one Lord."
Genesis 1:26 "And God said, Let us make man in our image."
Genesis 3:22 "And the Lord God said, Behold, the man has become as one of us, to know good and evil."
I John 5:7 "And there are three that bear witness in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost: and these three are one."
It does no good to claim that "Let us" is the magisterial "we." Such usage implies inclusivity of all authorities under a king's leadership. Invoking the Trinity solves nothing because such an idea is more contradictory than the problem it attempts to solve.
Are we all sinners?
Romans 3:23 "For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God."
Romans 3:10 "As it is written, There is none righteous, no, not one."
Psalm 14:3 "There is none that doeth good, no, not one."
Job 1:1 "There was a man . . . who name was Job; and that man was perfect and upright."
Genesis 7:1 "And the Lord said unto Noah, Come thou and all thy house into the ark; for thee have I seen righteous before me in this generation."
Luke 1:6 "And they were both righteous before God, walking in all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blameless."
How old was Ahaziah?
II Kings 8:26 "Two and twenty years old was Ahaziah when he began to reign."
II Chronicles 22:2 "Forty and two years old was Ahaziah when he began to reign."
Should we swear an oath?
Numbers 30:2 "If a man vow a vow unto the Lord, or swear an oath . . . he shall do according to all that proceedeth out of his mouth."
Genesis 21:22-24,31 " . . . swear unto me here by God that thou wilt not deal falsely with me . . . And Abraham said, I will swear. . . . Wherefore he called that place Beersheba ["well of the oath"]; because there they sware both of them."
Hebrews 6:13-17 "For when God made promise to Abraham, because he could swear by no greater, he sware by himself . . . for men verily swear by the greater: and an oath for confirmation is to them an end of all strife. Wherein God, willing more abundantly to shew unto the heirs of promise the immutability of his counsel, confirmed it by an oath."
See also Genesis 22:15-19, Genesis 31:53, and Judges 11:30-39.
Matthew 5:34-37 "But I say unto you, swear not at all; neither by heaven . . . nor by the earth . . . . Neither shalt thou swear by thy head . . . . But let your communication be, Yea, yea; Nay, nay: for whatsoever is more than these cometh of evil."
James 5:12 ". . . swear not, neither by heaven, neither by the earth, neither by any other oath: but let your yea be yea; and your nay, nay; lest ye fall into condemnation."
When was Jesus crucified?
Mark 15:25 "And it was the third hour, and they crucified him."
John 19:14-15 "And about the sixth hour: and he saith unto the Jews, Behold your King! But they cried out . . . crucify him."
It is an ad hoc defense to claim that there are two methods of reckoning time here. It has never been shown that this is the case.
Shall we obey the law?
I Peter 2:13 "Submit yourself to every ordinance of man . . . to the king, as supreme; Or unto governors."
Matthew 22:21 "Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar's." See also Romans 13:1,7 and Titus 3:1.
Acts 5:29 "We ought to obey God rather then men."
How many animals on the ark?
Genesis 6:19 "And of every living thing of all flesh, two of every sort shalt thou bring into the ark."
Genesis 7:8-9 "Of clean beasts, and of beasts that are not clean, and of fowls, and of every thing that creepeth upon the earth, There went in two and two unto Noah into the ark, the male and the female, as God had commanded Noah."
Genesis 7:15 "And they went in unto Noah into the ark, two and two of all flesh, wherein is the breath of life."
Genesis 7:2 "Of every clean beast thou shalt take to thee by sevens, the male and his female: and of beasts that are not clean by two, the male and his female."
Were women and men created equal?
Genesis 1:27 "So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them."
Genesis 2:18,23 "And the Lord God said, It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him an help meet for him. . . . And Adam said, This is now bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh: she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man."
Were trees created before humans?
Genesis 1:12-31 "And the earth brought forth grass, and herb yielding seed after his kind, and the tree yielding fruit, whose seed was in itself, after his kind: . . . And the evening and the morning were the third day. . . . And God said, Let us make man in our image . . . And the evening and the morning were the sixth day."
Genesis 2:5-9 "And every plant of the field before it was in the earth, and every herb of the field before it grew: for the Lord God had not caused it to rain upon the earth, and there was not a man to till the ground. .Ê.ÊAnd the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground . . . And the Lord God planted a garden eastward in Eden; and there he put the man whom he had formed. And out of the ground made the Lord God to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight, and good for food."
Did Michal have children?
II Samuel 6:23 "Therefore Michal the daughter of Saul had no child unto the day of her death."
II Samuel 21:8 "But the king took the two sons of Rizpah . . . and the five sons of Michal the daughter of Saul."
How many stalls did Solomon have?
I Kings 4:26 "And Solomon had forty thousand stalls of horses for his chariots, and twelve thousand horsemen."
II Chronicles 9:25 "And Solomon had four thousand stalls for horses and chariots, and twelve thousand horsemen."
Did Paul's men hear a voice?
Acts 9:7 "And the men which journeyed with him stood speechless, hearing a voice, but seeing no man."
Acts 22:9 "And they that were with me saw indeed the light, and were afraid; but they heard not the voice of him that spake to me."
(For more detail on this contradiction, with a linguistic analysis of the Greek words, see "Did Paul's Men Hear A Voice?" by Dan Barker, published in the The Skeptical Review, 1994 #1)
Is God omnipotent?
Jeremiah 32:27 "Behold, I am the Lord, the God of all flesh: is there anything too hard for me?
Matthew 19:26 "But Jesus beheld them, and said unto them, With men this is impossible; but with God all things are possible."
Judges 1:19 "And the Lord was with Judah; and he drave out the inhabitants of the mountain; but could not drive out the inhabitants of the valley, because they had chariots of iron."
Does God live in light?
I Timothy 6:15-16 " . . . the King of kings, and Lord of lords; Who only hath immortality, dwelling in the light which no man can approach . . ."
James 1:17 " . . . the Father of lights, with whom is no variableness, neither shadow of turning."
John 12:35 "Then Jesus saith unto them, . . . he that walketh in darkness knoweth not wither he goeth."
Job 18:18 "He [the wicked] shall be driven from light into darkness, and chased out of the world."
Daniel 2:22 "He [God] knoweth what is in the darkness, and the light dwelleth with him." See also Psalm 143:3, II Corinthians 6:14, and Hebrews 12:18-22.
I Kings 8:12 "Then spake Solomon, The Lord said that he would dwell in the thick darkness." (Repeated in II Chronicles 6:1)
II Samuel 22:12 "And he made darkness pavilions round about him, dark waters, and thick clouds of the skies."
Psalm 18:11 "He made darkness his secret place; his pavilion round about him were dark waters and thick clouds of the skies."
Psalm 97:1-2 "The Lord reigneth; let the earth rejoice . . . clouds and darkness are round about him."
Does God accept human sacrifice?
Deuteronomy 12:31 "Thou shalt not do so unto the Lord thy God: for every abomination to the Lord, which he hateth, have they done unto their gods; for even their sons and their daughters they have burnt in the fire to their gods."
Genesis 22:2 "And he said, Take now thy son, thine only son Isaac, whom thou lovest, and get thee into the land of Moriah; and offer him there for a burnt offering upon one of the mountains which I will tell thee of."
Exodus 22:29 "For thou shalt not delay to offer the first of thy ripe fruits, and of thy liquors; the firstborn of thy sons shalt thou give unto me."
Judges 11:30-39 "And Jephthah vowed a vow unto the Lord, and said, If thou shalt without fail deliver the children of Ammon into mine hand, Then it shall be, that whatsoever cometh forth of the doors of my house to meet me, when I return in peace from the children of Ammon, shall surely be the Lord's, and I will offer it up for a burnt offering. So Jephthah passed over unto the children of Ammon . . . and the Lord delivered them into his hands. . . . And Jephthah came to Mizpeh unto his house, and, behold, his daughter came out to meet him with timbrels and with dances: . . . And it came to pass at the end of two months, that she returned unto her father, who did with her according to his vow which he had vowed."
II Samuel 21:8-14 "But the king [David] took the two sons of Rizpah . . . and the five sons of Michal . . . and he delivered them into the hands of the Gibeonites, and they hanged them in the hill before the Lord: and they fell all seven together, and were put to death in the days of harvest . . . And after that God was intreated for the land."
Hebrews 10:10-12 " . . . we are sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ . . . But this man, after he had offered one sacrifice for sins forever, sat down on the right hand of God."
I Corinthians 5:7 " . . . For even Christ our passover is sacrificed for us."
Who was Joseph's father?
Matthew 1:16 "And Jacob begat Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom was born Jesus."
Luke 3:23 "And Jesus himself began to be about thirty years of age, being (as was supposed) the son of Joseph, which was the son of Heli."
This chapter was first printed as a "nontract," a freethinkers' version of a (non-proselytizing) tract. Since it was first published, I have received numerous replies from Christians who think that these contradictions are either trivial or easily explained. Yet not a single "explanation" has been convincing. Most of them do little homework, inventing off-the-cuff defenses of what the bible "could have meant," or devising creative explanations that actually make the problem worse. For example, one Christian, agreeing with Eusebius, explained that "Thou shalt not bear false witness" does not prohibit lies, and that God actually wants us to tell falsehoods if it will further the kingdom of heaven.
Many of the defensive attempts are arguments from silence. Some apologists assert that since the writer of John does not say that there were not more women who visited the tomb with Mary, then it is wrong to accuse him of contradicting the other evangelists who say it was a group of women. But this is a non-argument. With this kind of thinking, I could claim that the people who accompanied Mary to the tomb included Mother Teresa, Elvis Presley, and Paul Bunyan. Since the writer of John does not specifically exclude these people, then there is no way to prove that this is not true--if such fragile logic is valid.
All of the above contradictions have been carefully studied, and when necessary the original languages have been consulted. Although it is always scholarly to consider the original languages, why should that be necessary with the "word of God?" An omnipotent, omniscient deity should have made his all-important message unmistakably clear to everyone, everywhere, at all times. No one should have to learn an extinct language to get God's message, especially an ancient language about which there is much scholarly disagreement. If the English translation is flawed or imprecise, then God failed to get his point across to English speakers. A true fundamentalist should consider the English version of the bible to be just as inerrant as the original because if we admit that human error was possible in the translation, then it was equally possible in the original writing. (Some fundamentalists do assert that the King James Version is perfect. One preacher reportedly said, "If the King James Version was good enough for the Apostle Paul, then it's good enough for me.") If a contradiction exists in English, then the bible is contradictory.
The above list of thirty-three contradictions is a very small portion of the thousands of biblical discrepancies that have been catalogued by scholars. See "Leave No Stone Unturned" for seventeen additional contradictions specific to the resurrection of Jesus. One monthly publication, "Biblical Errancy," is devoted entirely to this topic (published by Dennis McKinsey, 3158 Sherwood Park Drive, Springfield OH, 45505.) Even if a defender of the bible were to eliminate all of the above (and no one has come close), we are still only scratching the surface. The bible is a flawed book.
© Copyright 1992 by Dan Barker. All Rights Reserved.
Please do not distribute copies of this chapter in this form.
Vol. 11 No. 3 - Published by the Freedom From Religion Foundation, Inc. - April 1994
This essay was submitted to various national daily newspapers as an equal-time Easter-time article.
By Dan Barker
Spring is here again, and we all have reason to enjoy the season. But judging from the press, the weeks following the vernal equinox appear to be the almost exclusive property of those who believe that a savior-god rose from the dead.
We are not all Christians. The "resurrection" of the soil, sun, and the vitality of life have been celebrated since long before biblical times. Christians have simply borrowed most of these pagan fertility rituals for themselves.
"Easter" was a pagan spring goddess (Eastre, Astara), and inadvertently became inseparable from Christianity because of a King James mistranslation of "Passover" (pascha) in Acts 12:4. Easter bunnies, eggs, and cuddly chicks point to animal fecundity, and flowers such as the Easter Lily symbolize the long-awaited renewal of the earth.
Most ancient cultures, dependent on crops, had a concept of the death of the old year and the resurrection of the new. Many symbolized this cycle with animal sacrifice. A few groups sacrificed humans, and some even executed the king. Jews and Christians copied this idea of blood sacrifice to appease the fickle deities.
Chrishna was a Hindu god born Dec. 25 to a royal virgin named Maia and adopted by a father who was a carpenter. Since 1200 BC his followers celebrated his crucifixion, resurrection and ascension. Tammuz of Syria rose from the dead for the salvation of the world. Prometheus (547 BC) was nailed by the hands and feet to Mount Caucasus, with arms extended, and resurrected after a great earthquake. The Persian sun god Mithra (born Dec. 25 of a virgin, worshiped by first-century Roman soldiers) was executed and rose from the dead. It is easy to see that the Jesus story was cut from the same fabric as these ancient fertility myths.
There is no historical confirmation for the Christian resurrection outside the New Testament in the first century. The earliest possible (and quite dubious) extrabiblical mention of Christianity comes from Tacitus in the 2nd century, and he ignores the resurrection altogether. (The much heralded paragraph in Josephus was a 4th-century Christian interpolation.)
About 180 AD the highly respected Church father Irenaeus wrote that Jesus was not crucified, but lived to be about 50 years old.
The biblical resurrection accounts are wildly contradictory. Christian scholar A. E. Harvey said "it is impossible to fit their accounts together into a single coherent scheme." Albert Schweitzer said "[t]here is nothing more negative than the result of the critical study of the life of Jesus."
How many of us on the eve of the 21st century believe that dead bodies emerged from the graveyards of Jerusalem, as Matthew reports happened at the crucifixion, parading around like the Living Dead? Such an event should have caught the attention of someone.
And what about the reported darkness at the crucfixion? Passover is near the full moon: a solar eclipse can only occur during the new moon.
Mythology aside, Christians and non-Christians alike have plenty to celebrate this season: another year of promise, opportunity, and joy. Spring is here, and life is good!
Dan Barker is the author of Losing Faith In Faith: From Preacher To Atheist and works for the Freedom From Religion Foundation in Madison, Wisconsin.
Vol. 24 No. 7 - Published by the Freedom From Religion Foundation, Inc. - September 2007
Anti-missionaries on the Road
By Dan Barker
Deconverts Steve Benson and Dan Barker
I thought I had heard everything. After years debating theists, I didn't think I could ever be surprised by anything coming out of the mouth of a believer. Until. . . .
One spring, Steve Benson and I were driving his Jeep Wrangler back to Phoenix from Salt Lake City, where we had performed our Tunes 'N 'Toons show before an irreverent audience of former Mormons during General Conference week of the Mormon Church. Steve is the editorial cartoonist for the Arizona Republic. South of the Glen Canyon Dam in northern Arizona, outside of Page, we stopped at a vista hanging over the baked-pink high desert.
Native Americans were displaying crafts by the side of the road and I walked over to a stand where a Navajo named Bobby H. was under a rainbow-colored umbrella selling pretty pottery and jewelry made of turquoise, stone and silver.
"I'm also a Native American, on my Dad's side," I said, "from the Lenape tribe. Delaware Indians."
Pointing to an array of necklaces, I asked, "Why are you selling Christian crosses?"
I didn't think he heard me, but a few seconds later he said, "People buy them."
"But don't we natives have any pride?" I went on, a former minister who is now an anti-missionary. "The European invaders came to this continent with a gun in one hand and a bible in the other. They took our land, our buffalo, our history, our freedom--and they obviously took our dignity, else we wouldn't be so eager to embrace the religion of our oppressors."
I was imagining I had scored a point, until he said, "They gave us hope."
Yes. He was hoping tourists would purchase his crafts by the side of a road. Tourists living on stolen land.
"So you're a Christian?"
"I'm a Mormon," he replied slowly.
"A Mormon?" Steve was walking toward us, so I raised my voice. "Well, here's someone I think you should meet."
Former Mormon Steve Benson talking with a Native American Mormon convert (under umbrella).
Steve came up to the table. "You're a Mormon?" he asked.
"Yes. Eighty-five percent of the Navajos are Mormons," Bobby replied. "Are you too?" Steve suspected that figure was inflated, but he let it drop.
"I used to be a Mormon," Steve said. "I'm an atheist now. My grandfather was Ezra Taft Benson, the president of the Mormon Church and Secretary of Agriculture under Eisenhower."
Bobby was looking at the bumperstickers on the back of Steve's Jeep, one of which said: "There's A Sucker Born Again Every Minute."
"The Mormon religion has been a great blessing to our people," Bobby said.
"But it is demeaning to the Indians," Steve, the former missionary, replied.
"The Book of Mormon says that the Native Americans are descendants of the wicked Lamanites, who were cursed with a dark skin for their disobedience to God."
Bobby looked back at Steve's white face.
"How does that make you feel?" Steve asked.
"We deserved it," Bobby replied.
I was so shocked at those words that I couldn't think what to say, emotion trumping thought for a few seconds. I stepped back to take a photo. (above)
"The Book of Mormon said the Indians will become 'white and delightsome' if they convert," Steve continued. (The original Book of Mormon indeed had those words, but the church has since changed them to "pure and delightsome" after suffering charges of racism.)
"But that's true," Bobby said.
He went on to say that the Mormon Church proclaims that when the Indians converted, their skin actually started lightening.
"My skin will change color," he asserted.
"What color will it become?" Steve asked.
"I don't know. Maybe purple," he joked.
"That's not going to happen," Steve responded.
"Well, all I know," Bobby replied, "is that the Church has done a lot for me, because I strayed as a youth."
We talked for a few more minutes. We encouraged Bobby to actually read the Book of Mormon and the bible, to learn something about the history of his faith, and to think about how Christianity has oppressed groups of people, but little headway could be made while other shoppers were visiting the booth.
Before leaving, I bought one of his necklaces. One without a cross.
Dan Barker, co-president of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, is author of Losing Faith in Faith: From Preacher to Atheist. His tunes are featured on FFRF's CDs, "Friendly Neighborhood Atheist" and "Beware of Dogma."
By Dan Barker
From Religion and Prime Time Television, edited by Michael Suman [Center for Communication Policy, UCLA], Praeger Publishers, Westport, Connecticut (an imprint of Greenwood Publishing Group, Inc.), 1997. Reprinted here with permission.
The book is an outgrowth of the Religion and Prime Time Television Conference that the UCLA Center for Communication Policy, along with the American Cinema Foundation and the Center for the Study of Popular Culture, hosted on June 1, 1995. I was invited to represent nonbelieving American TV viewers.
"If it's religious, it must be good." This pervasive idea in society is a mistake that we unbelievers feel is far too often mimicked on television.
Millions of good Americans do not believe in a god or the supernatural. According to the polls, between 5% and 9% of the people of the United States say they are atheists. Christianity Today reported one survey showing that 7.5% of Americans declare themselves to be godless. By comparison, Jews are a respected minority at 2% to 3%, or about one-third the size of atheists.
The National Survey of Religion and Politics (1992, University of Akron), showcased in the January 30, 1995, issue of Time Magazine, puts the "non-religious" at 18.5% of Americans, outnumbering Mainline Protestants (18%) and surpassed only by Roman Catholics (23.4%) and Evangelicals (25.9%). The 1995 Information Please Almanac reports that the nonreligious and atheists are more than a billion (about 22%) worldwide.
Not only are we unbelievers a significant segment of the population, but those Americans who are religious are not as devout as they pretend. A study published in the December 1993 issue of American Sociological Review found that although roughly 40% of Americans regularly say they attend a place of worship on a weekly basis, only about half (19%) actually show up in the pews. (Church attendance is one of those factors of "social desirability" that are over-reported to pollsters.) This means that during any given non-holiday week, four out of five Americans do not attend church!
Freethinkers (atheists and agnostics) are a part of that "broad center" of American citizens who work hard, pay their taxes, do volunteer work, serve in the military, sit on juries, vote in elections, contribute to charity, work for political and social causes, and contribute to science, education, art, music, and literature. Some of them work in the entertainment industry.
Butterfly McQueen, who played Prissy in "Gone With the Wind," was a lifelong atheist. She was a caring, generous individual who fought against racism and oppression. During a speech before the Freedom From Religion Foundation (of which she was a Life Member), she commented, "As my ancestors are free from slavery, I am free from the slavery of religion." Butterfly invested time and energy into cleaning up slums. "They say the streets are going to be beautiful in heaven," she observed. "I'm trying to make the streets beautiful here."
Freethinkers care about this world. We teach our children the basic human values of honesty, responsibility, fairness, kindness, intelligence, reason, and respect. We do not threaten eternal punishment or promise other-worldly rewards in order to manipulate people to live a life of values: natural consequences are all the motivation we need. To the unbeliever, good is good for good's sake alone.
On television we often observe many religious roles, reflecting the rich diversity of our nation. But characters who are openly atheistic, though common in society, are scarce on the screen. Identifiable atheists and agnostics are as underrepresented on TV as we are in the prison system. It is as if the television industry reflects not only religious diversity but the general religious assumption that it's not nice to be critical of religion.
No one should try to dictate what kinds of programs the television industry should produce; but if anyone asks for our opinion, we freethinkers think it would be nice to see some shows that are critical of religion, directly skeptical alternatives to the ubiquitous shows about angels, prayer, Noah's Ark, biblical archaeology, faith, and so on. We have noticed that the few times atheists or agnostics are given a chance to present their views, the producers bend over backwards to provide balance, putting ministers or religious experts on the same show. Rarely does it work the other way around.
For example, I was once a guest on Seattle's "Town Meeting" TV talkshow to discuss atheism. For "balance" the producers included a local Baptist minister, a Catholic priest, and a rabbi, who gobbled up most of the time proselytizing, saying nothing that we haven't already heard for centuries.
Fine. But on programs that deal with religion, freethinkers or skeptics are rarely invited to give the "other side."
It would also be illuminating to see some news programs spotlighting public officials who abuse their constitutional oath by using their office or tax money to promote religion. Alabama Judge Moore, a darling of the Christian Coalition, is fighting a lawsuit over the fact that he has a Christian prayer uttered before court sessions, and displays the Ten Commandments on his wall. Governor Thompson of Wisconsin, a Catholic, autocratically removed our legally placed "State/Church: Keep Them Separate" banner from the capitol rotunda, claiming that it doesn't reflect the "values" of Wisconsin citizens. Such anecdotes are ubiquitous.
On the positive side, there are many wonderful, entertaining stories that can be told involving people who are openly free from religion. How about a made-for-TV movie about Vashti McCollum, the woman who won a landmark Supreme Court victory removing religious instruction from the public schools in 1948? This is a warm, human interest story about a brave unbelieving family defending "family values." Vashti's children were harassed and her family was shunned by the community when she stood up for the American principle of state/church separation. (Vashti's story can be read in her book One Woman's Fight.)
How about a show depicting the story of seven-year-old Mark Welch, who brought home a flier from public school inviting "any boy" to join the Boy Scouts? His father Elliott took him to the evening meeting at the school gymnasium and when the boys broke into groups, Elliott went to the table to sign Mark up. Noticing the Declaration of Religious Principle, he told the woman that his family was not religious and could not sign such a thing. "Then you'll have to leave," she told him coldly. Elliott had to go pull his son away from his friends, taking him out into the night, trying to explain why their family was not good enough for the Boy Scouts. (The Boy Scouts of America have defended this action in court, as well as many other cases of prejudice against unbelievers.)
Numerous brave and colorful freethinking champions have put their lives and reputations on the line in order to keep state and church separate. The struggle of the Unitarian family of Ed Schempp, whose famous 1963 Supreme Court Schempp decision removed prayer and bible reading from the public schools, is entertaining, poignant, and informative-and would make for a great television movie.
Or how about the fascinating life of the "great agnostic" Robert Green Ingersoll, the most famous orator of the nineteenth century, a warm family man and friend to presidents who has been virtually erased from history because of the manner in which he was vilified by the clergy for his iconoclastic views on religion? Or Thomas Paine, the deistic founding father, confidant of Washington and Jefferson, who wrote Common Sense, inspiring our country to a Revolutionary War, and who was later ostracized after writing The Age of Reason, the first American book critical of the Bible? Their stories would also make for great television fare.
Freethinking TV viewers would love to see a movie about Luther Burbank, the gentle "infidel" scientist who singlehandedly added billions in horticultural wealth to the world, and who was literally hounded to death by angry believers around the continent after his unbelief was revealed nationally. Or a documentary about the freethinking views of many of the early feminist pioneers such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton, who was shunned even by feminists after she wrote The Woman's Bible, critical of patriarchal religion. Or a show depicting how the irreverent humorist Mark Twain decided not to have his sacrilegious book Letters from the Earth published until long after his death because of the fear of religious reprisal.
Freethinkers have never bullied the entertainment industry with consumer boycotts or demands to present our point of view. The entertainment industry's only responsibility is to entertain.
I do suggest that the entertainment industry ought not to feel pressured by minority religious groups that complain that their particular views are being ignored or trivialized. Television has no obligation to preach the philosophy of any group of people, religious or not. If fundamentalist Christians want to hear about a "loving Jesus," they can turn on a religious channel, or turn off the TV and go to church. If they think their image needs improving, then they should start acting in ways to improve their image.
Let's face it: to most Americans, religion is boring. It makes many feel uncomfortable or embarrassed. It is insulting to others. You can show people sitting in a place of worship, praying to Jesus, Mary, Yahweh, or Allah, putting money in the collection plate, singing hymns. Then what? Writers can't carry it as far as the zealots would insist without turning television into tedium. Or worse, into sacrilege. Many believers don't want the "secular media" speaking on their behalf anyway.
Of course, sometimes religious expressions make sense in a show, in the context of plot and a character's motivation; but we freethinkers notice that gratuitous references to "God" or "heaven" are far too often sprinkled unnecessarily into the dialogue. Such casual comments may seem quite natural to Christians, but they are jarring intrusions to unbelievers. The assumption that all viewers understand the human race to be subservient to a Master and Lord is quite unsettling to millions of us who are free to think for ourselves.
We live in a country that is proudly rebellious. We fought a Revolutionary War in order to expel the King, Master, and Lord from our shores. We are not slaves to a dictator nor sinners deserving of eternal punishment. We are a country of "We, the people," the first nation with a godless constitution that is not based on the authority of a Sovereign. We freethinkers would never try to dictate the content of television programs, but we think producers and writers ought to know how unbelievers feel when we repeatedly see and hear references to the supernatural taken for granted, out of context, and not germane to the story.
If you can use religious comments for "color," then you could do the same with comments critical of religion. This will offend some viewers, but then we could all be offended equally.
Many television shows are purposely light in style and content, and it is understandable that certain religious or non- religious individuals will be caricatured in such programs. No discerning viewer should take offense. TV is not real life, after all.
But serious television programs should try to be accurate. Of course, not all fundamentalist Christians are hateful and intolerant and they should not always be portrayed that way. Neither are all unbelievers "angry atheists." Most freethinkers in America are happy, moral, productive, and tolerant.
Writers who create characters exemplifying goodness and charity should not jump automatically to ministers, priests, rabbis, Sunday School teachers, or missionaries. How about a "compassionate atheist" as a main character in a show promoting family values? Much good has been done in this world by people free from religion. And much harm has been committed by the clergy.
Millions of Americans are chagrined by the pretense that "family values" are an exclusive province of Christians or Jews, suggesting that the rest of us lack a compass for ethical behavior. Morality existed on this planet long before the Ten Commandments. Reason and kindness are all we need. We don't need a Bible or Lord to know how to live.
Jesus never used the word "family." He said, "If any man come to me, and hate not his father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren, and sisters, yea, and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple." He never married or fathered children, and actually discouraged parenthood (Matthew 19:12). To his own mother, Jesus said, "Woman, what have I to do with thee?" When a disciple requested time off for his father's funeral, Jesus rebuked him: "Let the dead bury their dead." These are hardly "family values."
Nowhere in the Bible do you find the warm-fuzzy nuclear family that modern American Christians champion.
Jesus said, "Think not that I am come to send peace on earth: I came not to send peace but a sword." The shameful litany of Christian oppression and warfare has fulfilled this prophecy. History and current headlines show that much evil has been committed in the name of religion. Are we all supposed to pretend otherwise?
If the television industry wants to be fair, then it should not always portray religion in a favorable light. For example, why did none of the broadcast media in the United States choose to air the critically acclaimed movie "The Boys of St. Vincent," spotlighting the serious epidemic of pedophilia among members of the Catholic priesthood? Does the Church still control the media as it did in the 1950s?
There will always be an unresolvable tension between religion and entertainment. Religion, by nature, is exclusionary and divisive; the entertainment industry, by necessity, must be inclusive and pluralistic. Most religions proselytize; good entertainment avoids preaching. Most religions teach that everyone in the world should be made to accept their values; good entertainment recognizes that the viewer has a choice.
Whether we believe in a supernatural world or not, those of us who care about this world agree that our society needs more understanding, more beauty, and less violence. Religion is not the answer. The answer lies in the responsible promotion of human values. Although we understand that the entertainment industry proclaims no mission to improve the world, there is no reason why it should feel pressured to perpetuate erroneous ideas that have made things worse.