Since this is the time so many folks are interested in talking about the good news, let’s do just that.
With Easter right around the corner, believers will no doubt wax on about how the empty grave is proof that Jesus is Lord and how the New Testament authors provided firsthand, authoritative accounts of what happened around 33 A.D.
I would surely crash Blogcritics’ servers if I attempted to address all the problems with the Jesus accounts or with the gospel stories in general, but I will note a few of them here.
A former pastor of mine (I’m a former believer) once admitted that if it could be found that one part of the Bible was unauthentic or contradictory or inaccurate, that the entire thing must be tossed out. This errantness has been established so many times by so many authors over the years, I don’t feel the need to reinvent the wheel, except to say that the resurrection, Lazarus rising from the dead, and other miracles alleged to have happened in the Bible—unsurprisingly absent today—are violations of the laws of nature, as David Hume and many others have written, and that for some mysterious reason they only occur in the works of highly fearful and superstitious cultures. Had Christianity not taken hold in Palestine and regions of the Mediterranean in the first and second centuries, we would today view the Bible as we now view Homer and all of Greek and Roman mythology.
I will take the case of the virgin birth—which, oddly enough, gets nary a mention in two of the four New Testament gospels—the concept of which was nothing new to ancient literature. So much so that we should have been more surprised if Jesus was not born of a virgin, since so many of his godly predecessors apparently were. In case this is new to some readers, Christopher Hitchens provides a handy list:
“Now the birth of Jesus Christ was in this wise. When his mother, Mary, was espoused to Joseph, before they came together she was found with child of the Holy Ghost.” Yes (emphasis mine), and the Greek demigod Perseus was born when the god Jupiter visited the virgin Danaë as a shower of gold and got her with child. The god Buddha was born through an opening in his mother’s flank. Catlicus the serpent-skirted caught a little ball of feathers from the sky and hid it in her bosom, and the Aztec god Huitzilopochtli was thus conceived. The virgin Nana took a pomegranate from the tree watered by the blood of the slain Agdestris, and laid it in her bosom, and gave birth to the god Attis. The virgin daughter of a Mongol king awoke one night and found herself bathed in a great light, which caused her to give birth to Genghis Khan. Krishna was born of the virgin Devaka. Horus was born of the virgin Isis. Mercury was born of the virgin Maia. Romulus was born of the virgin Rhea Sylvia. — “God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything“
Further, as related to the Gospel accounts, we have the problem of eyewitness testimony. We also have the problem of so few of such testimonies. If this was supposed to be the single biggest event in the history of the universe, why do we only have four accounts that betray themselves and each other? For instance, Matthew 2:1 suggests Jesus was born before 4 C.E. (“in the days of Herod”), while Luke 2:1-2 suggests he was born in 6 or 7 C.E. at the time of the Census of Quirinius. So much for the inerrancy. It seems to me that the correct birth year, not to mention the exact day, might have been an important detail to pinpoint for the most important individual ever born.
This brings up other questions. If God was all-powerful and omniscient, how could he allow his word to get edited and redacted from and added to such that it’s probably a distant cousin from the original text? If God was all-powerful, couldn’t he have assured that a perfect, truly inerrant word could pass through the generations? What’s more, if he was all-powerful, couldn’t he have written the entire thing himself without all the errors and then passed it down to each generation? Why depend on “inspired” humans to write it when he apparently created us with deep flaws? Is all of this not within the purview of the Christian god? If not, he’s not all-everything and not that dissimilar to the other god relics that have been hewn from the mind of man.
But back to eyewitness testimony. If I found that I woke up one morning with an angel of the Lord in my presence, I would conclude I was either dreaming or under a delusion. And anyone with whom I shared this news would likely say the same thing. We know from studies that modern eyewitness testimony is far from reliable. How much more so is eyewitness testimony from accounts of incredible, science-defying claims from 2,000 years ago? Fantastic claims require fantastic evidence, evidence on which the Bible barely scratches the surface. In order to establish the validity of claims of the miraculous, the proof would have to be stupendous, indeed. Gravity and evolution are scientific theories that are backed by reems of evidence, but the evidence needed to establish the truthfulness of gravity and evolution pales in comparison to the evidence needed to support claims of someone coming back to life or rising from the dead, because this has never been observed. Ever. Except, again, in the claims of the authors of highly fearful, highly superstitious ancient texts.
Hume makes the point in “Of Miracles:”
… no testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle, unless the testimony be of such a kind, that its falsehood would be more miraculous, than the fact, which it endeavours to establish … [Responding to a claim that someone was brought back to life, Hume weighs] the one miracle against the other; and according to the superiority, which I discover, I pronounce my decision, and always reject the greater miracle. If the falsehood of his testimony would be more miraculous, than the event which he relates; then, and not till then, can he pretend to command my belief or opinion.
In other words, if Jesus not rising from the dead would be more miraculous than if Jesus did rise from the dead, only then could we accept the claim in question. Thus, by Hume’s logic, Jesus rising from the dead is obviously more miraculous than the alternative. As we know, people, in fact, don’t rise from the dead hundreds or thousands of times every single day.
Finally, the text of the Bible has been studied and scrutinized by many biblical scholars. One of them is John Dominic Crossan, who, in his book, “The Historical Jesus,” establishes a system by which he categorizes into strata each of the canonical and gnostic gospels and other presumably Christian texts of the time. The first stratum includes works that were written between 30-60 C.E. None of the canonical gospels fall into this stratum. The second includes works written from 60-80 C.E. The Gospel of Mark, obviously, is the earliest of the gospels, and it falls here, written by the late 70s. The third stratum includes works penned between 80-120 C.E., while the fourth stratum, presumably texts that are less authentic and even more embellished and “reconstructed” from earlier works than works in the earlier strata, dates from 120-150 C.E.
Crossan makes the case that the gospels currently in our possession today are reconstructions from earlier texts, and the second, third, and fourth gospels are reconstructions from the earlier ones, while Mark itself is an edit or an addition to the Secret Gospel of Mark. Perhaps the earliest of them all, the Sayings Gospel Q, is currently “embedded,” as Crossan termed it, within Matthew and Luke. Written by the late 50s, by Crossan’s estimation, it contains no passion or resurrection story.
The point of all this is simply to say that Mark informed the other three gospels, while earlier, now lost texts informed Mark. That is to say further that the probability of the current gospels being true to the letter must be exceedingly small given what we know about eyewitness testimony and the construction of the New Testament itself. As Crossan concludes:
… there is only reconstruction. … If you cannot believe in something produced by reconstruction, you may have nothing left to believe in.
It is, of course, within one’s right to believe something based on scant evidence and from a book steeped in contradictions, faulty science and math, and stunningly primitive ethical codes. Some happily do, and all the better for them.
But even a cursory look at the evidence from the gospels reminds the rest of us that while Easter eggs, candy, and springtime offer nice pleasantries this time of year, the religious element ever behind the upcoming holiday was built, glorified, and crowned on a teetering house of cards.