Monday, March 24, 2008

The God who wasn't there

Over the Easter weekend I watched a DVD entitled, The God who wasn’t there, edited and narrated by someone named, Brian Flemming. Since it was an all-out attack on Christianity I thought it deserved a thorough critique (this is probably the longest article ever posted on Recliner Commentaries).


The DVD begins with images of the earth revolving around the sun, and the sun revolving around the earth. The narrator asks, if Christianity was wrong about the Solar System could they be wrong about Jesus also?

Of course we might also ask, if atheists who ran the former Soviet Union (and were responsible for the deaths of about 100 million people) were wrong, could they be wrong about Jesus too?

The point is that what medieval Roman Catholic bishops believed about the solar system has nothing whatsoever to do with the existence of Jesus. Of course, the narrator is smart enough to know that. The little solar system scene was not about rational arguments. It was about emotionally directing the audience down an anti-Christian path.

The path continues with testimonies of numerous happy—though not very well informed—Christians coming out of a Billy Graham crusade. The narrator then says, “of course, those aren’t the only faces of Christianity.” What follows are pictures of mass murderer Charles Manson with a caption reading “aka Jesus Christ”—as if Charles Manson actions had anything to do with love for Jesus!

Another picture was shown of a woman said to have been a devout Christian who cut off her baby’s arms for God—as if her actions had anything whatsoever to do with Christianity. Pictures of Pat Robertson and Tim LaHaye were also thrown in.

I’m not a particular fan of Pat Robertson or Tim LaHaye, but regardless of what you think of them, when their pictures are placed in the same group as a mass murderer and a woman who cut off her baby’s arms, you know that we are not looking at an objective treatment of Christianity! What followed was a mockery of the story of Jesus from birth to ascension using cheesy old Hollywood film clips.

The case for a mythical Jesus

In a nutshell, we could summarize the case for the non-existence of Jesus as laid out by the DVD in the following six points:

First, the Gospel of Mark was the first Gospel written and the other three were derived from Mark.

Second, the Gospel of Mark mentions the destruction of Jerusalem which occurred in AD 70. Since Jesus couldn’t possibly have predicted the destruction of Jerusalem 40 years before the destruction of Jerusalem occurred, the Gospels must have been written after AD 70. Since, Jesus died in AD 33, that means there is a 40 year gap between the time when Jesus died and the when the first Gospel was written.

Third, all we know about that time gap comes from the letters of Paul and Paul never even heard of the idea that Jesus was a real person who lived in the recent past. This is clear because there is no mention in any of Paul’s letters of Mary, Joseph, Bethlehem, John the Baptist, Jesus’ miracles, Jerusalem, Pilate, Jesus’ trials or anything Jesus ever said.

Fourth, the only thing Paul knows about Jesus is that he died, rose, and ascended into heaven, and Paul doesn’t place these events on earth. Rather, Paul places these events in the mythical realm just like stories of other savior gods of the time.

Fifth, since the Gospels are filled with outrageous improbabilities they cannot be understood as historical.

Sixth, since allegorical literature was extremely common back then, and since the story of Jesus fits the pattern of ancient mythical heroes, it is clear that the Gospels take Paul’s myth and make it appear historical, just like many stories on the internet which start out as fiction and are eventually believed as actual, historical events. The Gospels, therefore, are myth or symbolic narratives, not historical accounts.

Let’s examine each of these points one by one.

First, the Gospel of Mark was the first Gospel written and the other three were derived from Mark.

Although most scholars would agree that Matthew and Luke were derived in some way from Mark, few would agree that John was derived from Mark. The narrator’s understanding of biblical scholarship is apparently lacking.

Second, the Gospel of Mark mentions the destruction of Jerusalem which occurred in AD 70. Since Jesus couldn’t possibly have predicted the destruction of Jerusalem 40 before the destruction of Jerusalem occurred, the Gospels must have been written after AD 70. Since, Jesus died in AD 33, that means there is a 40 year gap between the time when Jesus died and the when the first Gospel was written.

The narrator is right that most scholars think the Gospels were written between AD 70 and AD 100, and that these dates are largely based on the fact that Mark records the destruction of Jerusalem. Many scholars once just assumed that Jesus couldn’t possibly have predicted the fall of Jerusalem, so the Gospels must have been written after that time.

Actually, this opinion is now somewhat outdated. Many critics today--even some pretty radical critics--are now starting to recognize that Jesus really did predict the fall of Jerusalem 40 years before it actually fell! They have reluctantly come to this conclusion because the vast majority of them believe in a “Lost Gospel of Q” in which Jesus alludes to the fall of Jerusalem. They acknowledge that Q contains the words of Jesus and that it was written before before the fall of Jerusalem.

What many critics don’t seem to realize, however, is that this undermines the main reason for dating the Gospels after the fall of Jerusalem! There is actually much more evidence that Matthew, Mark and Luke were written before AD 70 than after AD 70, and there are many scholars today who believe that this is the case. But if Matthew, Mark and Luke were written before AD 70, the narrator’s case for the 40 year gap is destroyed along with his case for the mythical Jesus.

Even if there was a 40 year gap, however, that means nothing. Ancient historians (and modern ones too) often write about events that occurred long before their time, but scholars don’t automatically assume the events, therefore, never happened. For example, almost everything we know about Alexander the Great was written about 400 years after he lived and is recorded in only one source! By contrast, what we know about Jesus comes from multiple sources written as early as 20 to 70 years after he lived.

Third, all we know about that time gap comes from the letters of Paul and Paul never even heard of the idea that Jesus was a real person who lived in the recent past. This is clear because there is no mention in any of Paul’s letters of Mary, Joseph, Bethlehem, John the Baptist, Jesus’ miracles, Jerusalem, Pilate, Jesus’ trials or anything Jesus ever said.

First, scholars call Paul’s letters “occasional” letters, which means that Paul was addressing specific problems and issues in specific churches. He was not writing to re-tell the story of Jesus any more than a missionary might repeat the story of Jesus when they write a letter back to their home church from the mission field.

Second, although there is no reason Paul should have mentioned Mary, Joseph, Bethlehem, John the Baptist, etc., in his letters; contrary to the assertions presented on the DVD, Paul nevertheless, knows Jesus as an actual person of history. For example, Paul says in the letter that we call “First Corinthians,” that Jesus was buried and raised from the dead and that this fact was witnessed by Jesus’ disciples and more than 500 other people, many of whom, Paul says, were still alive when Paul wrote the letter in AD 55 (1 Corinthians 15:3-6; cf. 12-20).

Furthermore, in an earlier letter to the Galatians written about AD 49, Paul writes about how fourteen years earlier he went to Jerusalem and met with the leaders of the church, Peter, James and John, and that they gave him their blessing to preach his gospel to the Gentiles (Galatians 2:1-10). In other words, Paul is not making up his own mythology about Jesus—those who actually waked with Jesus and heard Jesus preach, gave their blessing to Paul to preach his gospel.

And while the Paul never mentions Mary, Joseph, Bethlehem, John the Baptist, etc., what the narrator doesn’t tell his audience is that Paul says Jesus was born and raised Jewish, had a brother named James, knew some of Jesus’ disciples by name including the fact that Peter was married. Paul knew that Jesus had a last supper with his disciples on the night of his death and that he was betrayed and executed by crucifixion (Galatians 1:19, 3:16, 4:4, 5:11, 6:12; First Corinthians 1:17-18, 9:5, 11:23-25; Romans 1:3 and Philippians 2:3, 3:18. See Eddy, Paul and Gregory Boyd. The Jesus Legend. Grand Rapids : Baker, 2007, 209).

In other words, by selectively picking out some things in Jesus’ life that Paul doesn’t mention, the narrator concludes that Paul doesn’t mention anything of a historical nature about Jesus’ life and then further concludes that Jesus must not have existed!

The narrator also argues that Paul never quoted from Jesus. While Paul doesn’t quote Jesus verbatim, scholars have demonstrated that Paul was to a great extent simply passing on and contextualizing the teachings of Jesus. I won’t repeat the evidence here but anyone who is interested should consult the outstanding book by Oxford University scholar, David Wenham entitled, Paul; Follower of Jesus or Founder of Christianity?”

The idea that Paul didn’t know anything about the real historical Jesus is just factually wrong.

Fourth, the only thing Paul knows about Jesus is that he died, rose, and ascended into heaven. Paul doesn’t place these events on earth but, just like the other savior gods of the time, in the mythical realm

This is an old theory which many scholars now reject. First, nearly all scholars acknowledge that Paul experienced a dramatic change in life, changing from someone who persecuted Christians, to someone who worked tirelessly and suffered immense persecution to preach Jesus.

Pagan myths would likely have been disgusting to a former Pharisee like Paul so the idea that Paul’s whole life changed dramatically when he started borrowing from non-Jewish or pagan myths to create some kind of mythical Jesus, and then was willing to suffer beatings and imprisonment for the myths he knew were fictional—is harder to believe than the message Paul preached!

Second, if you actually read the myths about Mithras, Attis, Adonis, Osiris, Tammuz, or Dionysus you will find that they don’t look anything like Jesus as all! The supposed parallels are arrived at by cherry-picking the stories--and even then the imagined parallels are a stretch.

For example, with Osirus, there is no real resurrection. The Osirus myth says the god’s body was drowned, dismembered and scattered but later gathered, reassembled and rejuvenated. The story of Attis records his death but not a resurrection or even a rebirth. The story of Augustus’ “virgin birth” was nothing of the sort. Augustus’ wife was said to have slept overnight in a pagan temple during which a snake crawled up inside her vagina and impregnated her! Some parallels!

Third, the narrator didn’t bother to tell his audience that much of the evidence for such supposed parallels comes from a hundred to three hundred years after the time of Jesus! If there are parallels at all it is because pagan authors are borrowing from Christianity!

Finally, far from writing in the “mythical realm” Paul argues that if Jesus did not really rise from the dead, his whole ministry was worthless (1 Cor. 15)! That hardly sounds like he is basing his ministry on a myth.

Fifth, since the Gospels are filled with outrageous improbabilities that cannot be understood as historical.

First, the DVD quotes Robert Price—a noted proponent of the Jesus myth theory—as saying the gospels are filled with “outrageous improbabilities.” But as the world-famous Jesus scholar, N.T. Wright, once said, “History is filled with improbabilities, but my goodness, they happened!” Wright is right. History should be determined primarily on the basis of historical evidence, not simply on what someone thinks was improbable.

Interestingly enough, however, Price doesn’t mention Jesus’ miracles or resurrection as examples of the “outrageous improbabilities,” though I’m sure he regards them as such. To do so would be like saying, “I don’t believe Jesus existed because I don’t believe in the stories about his miracles or resurrection.” This would have been an honest way of dealing with the evidence (I’m not implying that Price was in any way being dishonest) because in fact, this is why many people don’t believe in the Gospel’s portrayals of Jesus. They simply don’t believe the supernatural events recorded about his life. Most other arguments against the Gospel’s views of Jesus are just smoke and mirrors.

The best examples of “outrageous improbabilities” Price provides, therefore, are 1) the “slaughter of innocents”, that is, the killing of the babies in Bethlehem at by Herod at the time of Jesus’ birth 2) the Jewish supreme council meeting on Passover eve to get rid of Jesus and 3) Pontius Pilate releasing “a known killer of Romans” and turning Jesus over to be killed after trying to let him off the hook.

Price’s only argument about the “slaughter of innocents” is that it is mythological and derived from the book of Exodus. This is like arguing that given any two similar events, the second one must be mythical and derived from the first. So, for example, the assassination of John F. Kennedy must be a mythical story derived from an earlier Presidential assassination!

Of course, Price would say this is nonsense, but so is his dismissal of the killing of the babies as mythical simply because the book of Exodus has a story about the death of the firstborn. The fact is that there is nothing unhistorical about the possibility that Herod the Great—who even had members of his own family killed—killed a few babies to eliminate one who might one day threaten his throne. This is entirely in keeping with everything historians know of Herod’s character.

Another “outrageous improbability” Price provides is the Jewish supreme council meeting on Passover eve to get rid of Jesus. Passover was a time in which hundreds of thousands of people descended on Jerusalem to celebrate the feast. Given the “hell-on-earth” Jews had suffered in the previous two hundred years, they were desperate for a “Messiah” to come and liberate them from oppressive, pagan Roman rule. Jesus had entered Jerusalem on Passover to the cheers of huge crowds who had heard of his mighty works. Perhaps he was that Messiah. Perhaps this Passover would be when he would “make his move.”

The Jewish authorities were well aware of the enormous potential for disaster that could be caused by a Messiah, or Messiah wannabee during a feast like Passover. If things got out of hand, the Romans would come in—as they had done before—and slaughter people by the thousands. It may well be that the Jewish Council believed this was a matter of national security that couldn’t wait. When viewed in historical context, not only is this not improbable, but may even be likely.

Another scholar, not mentioned in the DVD, argued that it was very improbable that Jesus entered Jerusalem to cheering crowds (triumphal entry), but a few days later the crowds were yelling, “crucify him.” But to Jewish people the idea of “Messiah” was a king who was going to kick out the pagans. The idea that pagans would gain control of the Messiah was absolutely unthinkable. So when Jesus came to Jerusalem there was high expectation that this miracle-working Messiah might make his move against Rome. When the people later saw him beaten, bloody and chained to Roman soldiers, they became furious at being deceived by what the now saw as an imposter. Far from being improbable, these stories are very probable.

The other outrageous improbability Price provides is the story of how Pontius Pilate released Barabbas, “a killer of Romans,” and turned Jesus over to the crowds after trying to get him released.

First, Price is right that the idea that Pilate would show any kind of concessions to the Jews is unusual, but Pilate’s career depended on keeping peace in Judea, and even military men often make political concessions when it is to their advantage.

Second, we don’t know who instituted this custom of releasing a prisoner on Passover. It may be that Pilate was just carrying out a custom begun by a previous governor and that to drop the custom now could cause more unrest than it was worth.

Third, Pilate’s attempt to release Jesus was probably not because he felt any compassion toward Jesus, but simply because the religious leaders wanted Jesus killed and because Pilate hated them, his knee jerk reaction was to deny their wishes.

The fact is that all we have is what was written in our ancient sources. The more we start re-writing history based on what seems improbable to us, the greater the risk that we are not really recovering history, but re-writing history and creating our own myths.

Sixth, since allegorical literature was extremely common back then, and since the story of Jesus fits the pattern of ancient mythical heroes, it is clear that the Gospels take Paul’s myth and make it appear historical, just like many stories on the internet which start out as fiction and are eventually believed as actual, historical events. The Gospels, therefore, are myth or symbolic narratives, not historical accounts.

First, histories and biographies were common back then also. Just because allegorical literature was common says nothing about the genre of the Gospels.

Second, scholars have shown that the Gospels simply do not fit the genre of myth. When Luke, for example, writes

“In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar—when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, Herod tetrarch of Galilee, his brother Philip tetrarch of Iturea and Traconitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene—during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiphas…”

...he is obviously trying to place his story in a concrete historical place and time. This is no story about Zeus on Mt. Olympas! The emphasis on history is even more pronounced in the sequel to Luke’s gospel (the book of Acts) in which dozens of places and events find historical verification.

The Oxford scholar, C.S. Lewis, who was an expert in myth, once wrote that he knows myth and the Gospels are just not myth. For a more recent study see, Burridge, Richard. What are the Gospels; A comparison with Graeco-Roman Biography. New York : Cambridge University Press, 1995).

Third, the DVD then tries to argue that Jesus is just a myth like Romulus, Hercules or Zeus. It does this by listing 22 supposed characteristics of the “hero tradition.” The DVD argues that the story of Jesus follows this tradition closely.

The 22 characteristics are listed below with an asterisk (*) next to the ones the DVD says are true of Jesus and an X next to those in which the story of Jesus does not fit the pattern.

1) The hero’s mother is a royal virgin*, 2) The hero’s father is a king*, 3) The hero is often a near relative of his mother*, 4) The circumstances of his conception are unusual*, 5) He is reputed to be the son of a god*, 6) At birth an attempt is made often by his father to kill him*, 7) He is spirited away*, 8) And reared by foster parents in a far country X, 9) We are told nothing of his childhood *, 10) On return he goes to his future kingdom*, 11) After victory over a king or Jinn or dragon X, 12) Marries a princes X, 13) He becomes king*, 14), King reigns uneventfully* 15) The king prescribes laws* 16) He later looses favor with his subjects* 17) He is driven from the throne of the city* 18) He has a mysterious death* 19) Often at the top of a hill* 20) His children if any do not succeed him* 21) His body is not buried* 22) He has one or more sepulchers*

When Jesus is compared to other mythological heroes we find that Oedipus and Thesius meet 22 of the characteristics, Jesus meets 19, Romulus and Hercules meet 17, Perseus meets 16, Zeus and Jason meet 15, Robin Hood meets 13 and Apollo meets 11.

A closer look at these characteristics, however, will show that the whole thing is contrived. While Jesus' mother was a descendant of David, she was a poor peasant, hardly a "royal" virgin. Jesus’ adopted father was not a king, he was also a peasant—unless you count God as his father but that is counted under his reputation as son of God. To count this twice is stacking the deck.

To say that the hero is often a near relative of his mother is also contrived. Most people are near relatives of their mothers! Jesus adopted father made no attempt to kill him as the fathers of heroes in other hero stories. It is true that we are told almost nothing of his childhood, but that is a characteristic on ancient bios, or biography, not just of heroes.

Jesus’ future kingdom is not just Galilee or Judea, but the world. The whole story of the Gospels is how Jesus will one day be the king, but he was never an earthly king and never ruled, eventfully or uneventfully.

Jesus certainly taught the crowds, but not in the sense of an earthly king prescribing laws. He did not loose favor with his subjects, but with those who never were his subjects to begin with (unless you count Judas). He couldn’t be driven from the throne of the city because he never sat on the throne.

There was nothing mysterious about his death and his body was in fact buried. The whole thing was contrived to make it look like Jesus was just like ancient mythological heroes, but when you count up the actual similarities, Jesus doesn’t even make the list of “heros.” If you actually read the Gospels and then read the stories of these mythological characters, you will find that they are as different as night and day!

But on the other hand, even if the Gospel writers had written their stories in such a way as to make them conform to some accepted pattern, that does not mean they are necessarily unhistorical. For example, someone once showed that Abraham Lincoln fits the hero pattern better than Oedipus, who is at the top of the list! Others have shown that stories about Napoleon, Churchill, Kennedy also fit the myth patterns!

Finally, Barbara and David Mikkelson (from were interviewed in the DVD to show that fictional stories can take on a life of their own and become believed as actual history. The difference is that stories about Jesus were being told at a time when both the eyewitnesses and enemies of Jesus were still alive and could debunk false rumors going around (just like debunks false internet rumors).

Few of those who spread internet rumors would be willing to put their life on the line for the rumors they spread. Everything we know about early Christians supports the fact that they were so convinced that what they believed about Jesus was true, they were willing to face beating, prison and even death.

Seventh, since there were ancient Jews and Jewish Christians who thought Jesus had been killed a century earlier under Alexander Jennaeus or Herod, this diversity of opinion about Jesus supports the idea that Jesus of the Gospels was a myth based on earlier stories circulated before the time Jesus was supposed to have existed. The Jesus of the Gospels, therefore, never existed.

First, the idea that early Christians had any significant disagreement about when Jesus lived is simply not true. Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Acts and First Timothy all agree that Jesus was executed during the rule of Pontius Pilate who ruled Judea from AD 26-36.

That Jesus was crucified during the rule of Pontius Pilate is confirmed by Ignatius, an ancient Christian leader whose letters are not in the New Testament. It is also confirmed by the Jewish historian, Josephus and the Roman historian, Tacitus. Both Luke and Tacitus also place Jesus during the time of Emperor Tiberius (AD 14-37).

Contrary to Price, the Gospel of Peter is no exception to this. The Gospel of Peter says that Jesus was tried under Herod. Far from being a disagreement about when Jesus lived, this fact is confirmed by the Gospel of Luke (23) which affirms that Jesus was sent to Herod by Pontius Pilate, who then sent Jesus back to Pilate. This Herod is Herod Antipas, a contemporary of Pontius Pilate and the son of Herod the Great.

In the DVD, Price doesn’t say where he gets the idea that Jesus lived during the rule of Alexander Jannaeus (103-76 BC), but in his book entitled Jesus, he says that “it is attested in both the Talmud and in the Toledoth Jeschu.” Price doesn’t bother to mention that the “Toledoth Jeschu wasn’t compiled until the fifth century AD, and the Talmud wasn’t compiled until AD 400 (Palestinian Talmud) or AD 600 (Babylonian Talmud).

So essentially, what Price is doing is throwing out the testimony of Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Acts, First Timothy, Josephus and Tacitus—all written from about 20 to 100 years after Jesus death—in favor of two documents written about 400 or more years after Jesus’ death! Some might say that something other than objective scholarship is going on here.


Finally, nearing the end, the DVD then moves on to blood sacrifice, mockingly saying, "of course Christians today aren’t obsessed with blood sacrifice" anymore. What follows are some of the most graphic clips from Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ and an extended list of every instance of violence in the film. The DVD emphasizes how this film was so overwhelmingly accepted by Christians. The point seems to be to portray Christians as violent, bloodthirsty, animals.

Of course the narrator didn’t bother to mention all the slasher films that many non-Christians (and sometimes even Christians!) attend regularly—Films that show people being brutally terrorized, tortured and slaughtered for the shear bloodthirsty pleasure of the audience.

Christians did not go to Gibson’s Passion film to satisfy some blood-thirsty pleasure any more than they would want to watch a film of any other close loved one being tortured! But the historical fact is that Jesus was crucified, and crucifixion could be every bit as brutal as Mel Gibson portrayed it to be.

The value of The Passion lies in the fact that modern Christians let the words “Jesus died for your sins” roll of their tongues without so much as a moment’s thought about what that means. Indeed, most Christians had no idea about the brutality of crucifixion before Gibson showed them. Gibson’s film was so powerful to Christians, not because we enjoyed the brutality—we didn’t, not at all—but because it dramatically demonstrated the amazing extent to which God would go to save us from judgment.

Of course any talk of saving us from the penalty of our sin leads to the other side of this coin—hell. The DVD emphasizes the horribleness—not only of hell itself—but of the doctrine of hell and the very idea that people would go to hell.

It is important to note that whether there is a hell or not has absolutely nothing to do with whether God exists. The narrator’s argument is something like saying, “I don’t like the idea of hell so I refuse to believe in God.” This is absurd. You may not like the horror of the Iraq war either, but it would be rather ridiculous to therefore, to conclude that George Bush doesn’t exist! Serious scientists have, for years, been looking for extra-terrestrial life in the SETI project. If they ever found evidence for such life, it would be rather ridiculous for them to deny its existence just because they found that it was malevolent!

What many people want to do is to create a God in their own image—a God who fits their view of what a god should be. Of course this is usually a god who will look with fondness on them even when they lie, steel, cheat, envy, slander, lust, maliciously gossip, cause strife or heartbreak, or live arrogant, uncompassionate self-absorbed lives. They simply deny the existence of any god who does not fit their own personal desires and either make up a god to suit them, or deny that God exists at all.

But we should consider the alternative. No final judgment means that for the billions of people throughout history who have been brutally oppressed, tortured, starved or slaughtered, there is no justice. Ever! The Hitler’s, the Stalin’s, the Saddam’s of this world—or even many of those who have misused or abused you—all get away with it.

More and more people who are raised in the public education system are now understanding that no final judgment means that there is no right or wrong and that whatever you can get away with is perfectly OK. Of course this doesn’t prove the existence of a final judgment any more than the doctrine of hell proves the non-existence of God. The point is only that there is a downside to the idea of no final judgment.

The video ends with the narrator interviewing the head of a Christian school he once attended. It is clear that this school principal was completely unprepared for this interview. Eventually it also becomes clear the school principal had been duped into the interview on false pretenses. The principal says he thought the discussion was going to be about the narrator’s behaviors that got him kicked out of the school in the first place. We began to wonder if the whole video project was an act of hateful vengeance against a Christian school that disciplined him for bad behavior.

I’ve only scratched the surface of arguments that can be marshaled against this DVD and against the Jesus’ myth theory. Anyone who wants an in-depth discussion of the issues should read the outstanding book, The Jesus Legend by Paul Rhodes Eddy and Gregory Boyd, Baker, 2007.


professor ed said...

Nice post. To bad we can't get the movie's creator to respond. I suspect a "lively" discussion would result.

Robert said...

This is probably one of your best writings on your blog yet. Very nicely done.

As an FYI, it's "", not snoops. :)

Dennis said...

Correction made. Thanks!