Traditional Christianity shares the burdens of Judaism and Islam with respect to the concept of God the all-powerful and all-knowing in the Hebrew Bible.
It also has its own set of special problems that act as a barrier to accepting the most fundamentalist interpretation of the New Testament, which describes the life and teachings of Jesus Christ and his disciples.
It is very difficult for those of us who grew up as members of Christian churches to be objective about what the Bible says because of two millennia of dogmatic interpretations by the contending sects.
Although many of the 2.2 billion adherents are only nominal, half were baptized Catholic, about 800 million belong to Protestant denominations, and 200 million are members of the Eastern Orthodox churches.
To understand who Jesus was and his message, one has to start with the question of how reliable the New Testament is as a source of the facts (let alone the larger truths).
It is important to know that no scholars believe the “synoptic gospels” (Matthew, Mark, and Luke, with supposedly similar accounts of Jesus’ life) were written by the apostles whose names they now bear. These were probably composed 70-90 A.D. and the names were attached much later to give them credibility.
The fourth life of Jesus, the Gospel of John, is from a very different perspective, and was written in stages, probably finalized close to 100.
There are thousands of discrepancies in the manuscripts we have, with the oldest copies made about 250, all written in Greek. Yet Jesus and his apostles spoke Aramaic, the first instance of a transition in which errors could be introduced (it is unlikely that the apostles were even literate, since few Jewish peasants of the time were).
The first gospel to be written, Mark, was probably composed after 70 A.D., since it refers to the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem that occurred that year. That would place it 40 years after Jesus’ death and these gospels provide plenty of evidence they were not written by eyewitnesses, says the eminent New Testament scholar James Robinson in The Gospel of Jesus.
It is believed that the authors of Matthew and Luke drew on Mark and a list of Jesus’ sayings known as Q (from the German Quelle or “source”), as well as other sources. Matthew has more of a Jewish Christian perspective, while Luke tells the story from the viewpoint of the “gentiles,” the non-Jews to whom Paul directed his ministry.
The Life of Jesus
For anyone who grew up with the impression that the synoptics were more or less in harmony with each other, it is shocking to find out how different and contradictory they are.
Bible scholar and former evangelical Christian Bart Ehrman, in Jesus, Interrupted: Revealing the Hidden Contradictions in the Bible and Why We Don’t Know About Them, analyzes the discrepancies in a non-technical way and his comments are worth studying in detail. Just a few examples regarding the most important points in Jesus’ life:
Birth and early years
Matthew and Luke tell long stories about Jesus’ birth and childhood that seem to be from entirely different traditions. There are only two key points on which they agree: that Mary was a virgin and that he was born in Bethlehem.
Matthew has the three wise men from the East coming to Jesus’ home in Bethlehem by following a star. King Herod hears about this and orders the slaughter of local children under two years old, implying the birth could have happened that much earlier. Matthew says that to avoid the slaughter, Jesus’ family flees to Egypt.
After Herod’s death, they plan to return to Judea, where Bethlehem is, but because of fear of the new ruler, Herod’s son, they decide to relocate to Nazareth in the northern area of Galilee.
Luke, however, claims there was an empire-wide census during the reign of Caesar Augustus, when Quirinius was governor of Syria, although there are no other sources indicating such a massive event took place. This would also date it 10 years after the death of King Herod, in contradiction to Matthew.
According to Luke, Joseph, living in Nazareth, had to return to Bethlehem because his ancestor, David, was born there a thousand years earlier, which is how they ended up in a stable, since the inns were full. It’s impossible to imagine a census then or today that would require everyone to return to where their ancestors were a millennium before.
A month or so after his birth, Jesus’ family returns to Nazareth (they do not go to Egypt).
What Matthew and Luke were trying to do with these stories was to show how Jesus fulfilled the prophecy that the Jewish Messiah was to be born in Bethlehem of the House of David. Each presents a different genealogy to show that Jesus is descended from David through Joseph.
But this is odd because they also testify that Joseph was not the biological father of Jesus—God the Father was.
Timing of the Last Supper and Death
According to Mark, Jesus and his disciples went to Jerusalem for the Passover feast and on the day before, he instructs them to prepare it to be served that evening, which would be the start of Passover (in the Jewish calendar, each day begins in the evening). As Jesus breaks the bread, he tells them this is symbolic of the breaking of his body that will occur, while the wine is a symbol of the blood he will shed.
After they eat, they go to the Garden of Gethsemane, where Jesus prays. Judas brings Roman soldiers to arrest him there and Jesus spends the night in jail. In the morning, he is tried by Pontius Pilate and Jesus is crucified at 9 a.m. on the day of Passover.
In John, while the sequence is similar, there is little said about the preparation or symbolism of the meal. What he highlights is that Jesus washes the feet of the disciples.
John says that the death sentence was handed down at noon the day before Passover, a day before Mark’s schedule. It seems that John wants this to take place at the time when the lambs are slaughtered for the Passover meal because John is the only one to call Jesus “the lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.”
Details of the Trial and Crucifixion
In Mark, Jesus is mocked and beaten by Pilate’s soldiers and is taken away to be crucified. Two robbers who are crucified with Jesus mock him.
Jesus says nothing until the very end, when he utters, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” and the curtain of the temple rips in half when he dies. A soldier testifies that he has witnessed the death of the Son of God.
In Luke, Pilate turns to the Herod II (son of the king who killed the infants) to try to get him to take over Jesus’ case. It is Herod’s men who mock Jesus. On the way to the crucifixion, Jesus shows concern for those he meets.
One of the robbers mocks Jesus, but the other reprimands his fellow criminal and asks Jesus to remember him. Jesus responds that the two of them will be together in paradise as soon as they die.
Jesus says of those killing him, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” The temple curtain rips while he is still alive. At the end, Jesus says, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.” This is a confident and calm statement, rather than the impression Mark gives that Jesus feels abandoned by God.
Christian apologists cite the witnesses to Jesus’ resurrection as primary evidence that it took place. All four gospels agree that Jesus rose on the third day after his death and that Mary Magdalene found his tomb empty (however, scholars agree that the last 12 verses of Mark were added to the original much later). But the differences are striking:
*According to John, Magdalene went alone. Mathew says she went with another Mary. Mark says Magdalene, Mary the mother of Jesus, and Salome went together. Luke mentions a number of women from Galilee and elsewhere.
*Mark says the stone had already been rolled away from the tomb when the women arrive, while Matthew says an angel did this while they were there.
*Mark says they saw a young man there, Luke says two men, Matthew an angel, and John has no one else there.
*Mark says the women were told to tell the disciples that Jesus will meet them in Galilee. Luke says the disciples were to be told to remember what Jesus had told them while in Galilee, that he would die and rise again, and they remain in Jerusalem.
*Matthew says the women told 11 of the disciples what happened, Luke says they told the 11 and other people, John claims they told Peter and one unnamed discipline, while Mark states that they told no one.
*What do the disciples do in response? According to Matthew, Jesus immediately appears to them. Luke reports that the disciples do not believe “an idle tale.” John says they go to the tomb to investigate.
*According to Luke, while the disciples remain in Jerusalem, the same day that the women saw the resurrected Jesus, he appears to two disciples, who tell the others and then Jesus appears to all of them and ascends to heaven. In Acts, they are told to remain in Jerusalem for 50 days until the Day of Pentecost, while Mark says they went to Galilee to meet the resurrected Jesus immediately after hearing about the resurrection.
If this were a trial, the case would be dismissed for lack of credible witnesses from Jesus’ inner circle, let alone the 500 who were said to have met him after the resurrection.
But this is not to say that the disciples simply made up their stories. For a variety of reasons, the tomb could have been empty. The concept of resurrection was already a belief in some Jewish circles and it may have been assumed he had risen. The apostles also may have been visited by the spirit of the deceased Jesus. Witnesses in cases of human and animal ghosts have reported that the some spirits can even be felt. But we have no first-hand accounts.
Raising questions about the accuracy of the New Testament mean that Jesus was a mere mortal. He could have been a prophet with supernatural powers or a savior-redeemer sent by God the Father.
The Christian God
The deeper one goes into what the New Testament says about the relationship between Jesus and the Father, the more the orthodox theology of the Trinity can be seen as a development hundreds of years after Jesus’ death.
According to Robinson, if one extracts the oldest “Q sayings” from the synoptic gospels, Jesus repeatedly distinguishes himself from God:
*The Lord’s Prayer is addressed to the Heavenly Father.
*Jesus says he casts out demons in the name of the Father.
*He tells a crowd to trust that God will provide for them, just as he does for the birds.
*All three synoptics tell the story of the young man who addresses Jesus as “Good Master,” to which Jesus responds, “Why do you call me good? There is none good but one, that is God.”
Jesus never refers to himself as the Christ (Greek for the Hebrew “messiah,” meaning “the anointed one”).
He does call himself “son of man,” but this is better translated as “son of humanity,” a rabbinic term for a member of the human race.
During his baptism, a voice from heavens declares him to be “my son, the beloved, in whom I am well-pleased.” One would think this makes the distinction clear, but later misunderstandings of the title “son of God” obscure this. This was a term used for Roman rulers, who were semi-divine representatives.
Jesus uses this phrase in the famous admonition to “love your enemies and pray for those who are persecuting you,” which he promises will enable people “to become sons of your Father, for he raises his sun on the bad and the good and rains on the just and unjust.”
Ehrman points out that while none of the synoptics claim Jesus is the same as God the Father, they do give him special divine status. The earliest Christians appear to have believed that this came at his resurrection, as in speeches by the apostles in Acts, though these do not claim Jesus is God.
Even the seven genuine epistles of Paul (scholars agree that six of the traditionally ascribed were not authored by him), written 52-64 A.D., which confirm Jesus’ divine status, make it clear this is because he is an agent of the Father, like the angels. For example, in Philippians 2:5-11, God the Father is said to have “exalted” Jesus so that “every knee shall bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father.”
By 70, when Mark was being written, Jesus is depicted as having been made the Messiah at the time of the baptism.
Luke later pushes this status back to Jesus’ birth, since God is said to be his biological father.
Only the last of the gospels, John, written near the end of the first century, claims he was actually the “Son of God” before the universe was created. If this is the true doctrine, why is it not mentioned in the three synoptics? None of the “I am” quotations by Jesus found in John are in any of the earlier gospels (nor is almost any of John’s material).
Yet even the author of John makes a differentiation between God the Father and the Son: he refers to the Father as “ho theos” (the God) and to the Son only as “theos” (God).
The unity between the two is actually explained in John 17:20-21, during Jesus’ prayer to the Father about the disciples: “I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word; that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they all be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me.”
In other words, Jesus is united in love and spiritual intent with God, but not as the same being. But some early Christian leaders insisted that the Father and the Son not only were two aspects of one God, there was a third member of the “Godhead,” the Holy Spirit. Out of this debate emerged the doctrine of the Trinity.
Others came up with different interpretations of the passages about Jesus and God. One group accepted the idea of Patripassianism, which meant that God the Father became God the Son when he incarnated; they were one and the same God in different roles. This became accepted by the leadership of the church in Rome by the end of the 2nd century.
Another popular school of thought throughout early Christianity was Arianism which stated that Jesus was, indeed, the divine Son of the Father before the creation of the universe, but he was subordinate to the Father. It was the Son, Jesus, who was incarnated.
A deacon in Alexandria, Athanasius, disagreed sharply. He argued that there were three separate persons in the Godhead: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, each an equal part of the one God, all “of the same substance.”
Finally, the nominally Christian Emperor Constantine called the Nicene Council in 325 to debate this. A majority voted for Athanasius’ interpretation, but the arguments continued for decades (in fact, Athanasius eventually served as bishop for 46 years, but was so controversial that he was sent into exile five times for a total of 17 years).
If the doctrine of the Trinity were a vital truth, why was it not made clear in the New Testament? A much later copyist tried to make it appear so by inserting a reference to the Trinity in 1 John 5:7-8.
The Book of Revelation
If there is one book that seems to be out of harmony with the rest of the New Testament (with its emphasis on love, forgiving our enemies, helping the poor, and Jesus’ sacrifice for mankind) it is the Apocalypse of John aka the Book of Revelation. It is a fitting end for the Bible, since it is about the terrors unleashed by God at the “end of times” and the consignment of sinners to eternal hellfire.
The tone fits well with the image of Yaweh/Jehovah and Revelation has more allusions to the Old Testament than any other book in the New (concentrating on Isaiah, Psalms, and Ezekiel, while referencing few of the books at the beginning of the Bible, which were the primary sources for the rest of the Christian authors).
As Biblical scholar Elaine Pagels says, in Revelations: Visions, Prophecy, and Politics in the Book of Revelation, “The Book of Revelation is the strangest book in the Bible—and the most controversial.”
The traditional ascription of Revelation to the Apostle John has long been seen—by early church fathers and modern scholars—as incorrect. For starters, the Greek style is very different for Revelation, the Gospel of John and the letters of John. None of these were likely written by the apostle.
In fact, there was a great deal of resistance to Athanasius’ insistence that Revelation be included in the Bible when he issued his list of canonical books in 367. Bishop Cyril of Jerusalem, a council of bishops in Asia Minor, the eminent theologian Gregory of Nazianzus, and the church historian Eusebius raised questions about its legitimacy.
Even Martin Luther condemned it—until he found it useful to compare the pope with the seven-headed beast of Revelation (the pope returned the favor). If church leaders found Revelation questionable, why should the ordinary Christian look to it for dogma and how should anyone know how to interpret its obscure symbolism?
Yet it is now part of the accepted scripture of traditional Christianity (to read the complicated plot, see the entry in Wiki).
I have a special interest in this, having been to the cave on the island of Patmos off of Turkey, where it was composed, as well as to some of the cities on the mainland which the author references.
Two satanic beasts are mentioned. One is seven-headed, which seems to refer to the seven Julio-Claudian emperors of Rome. The other beast has the mysterious number 666 associated with his name, which most scholars agree is a coded reference to Nero (probably to avoid the author being charged with treason).
Part of Revelation is devoted to denunciation of gentile Christians, converted by the ministry of Paul and his disciples. The author believes in Jesus as a Jewish Messiah and abhors those who belong to “a synagogue of Satan,” where gentiles claim to a Spiritual Israel.
Most of the book is dedicated to enthusiastically detailing the horrors God will unleash on the world. Satan and his minions fight back until Jesus rides in on a white horse to command the angels who defeat them. He then reigns over the faithful for one thousand years on a newly-restored earth.
After the millennium passes, Satan again attacks the people of God, but is defeated. Everyone who ever lived is resurrected and judged, with the righteous to live with Jesus on the immortalized earth forever (not in a spiritual afterlife).
The wicked are cast into “the lake that burns with fire and sulfur, which is the second death” (21:8). These include “cowards, the faithless, the polluted, murderers, fornicators, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars…”
So it appears that anyone who ever told a lie, was afraid to act boldly, worshipped a different God, or had sex out of marriage will undergo “everlasting punishment” (according to Matthew 25:46). Torturers who do not kill their victims seem to have a loophole.
The reader could be forgiven for wondering about a comparison of this list of evil-doers with the synoptic gospels, where Jesus put people who oppress the less fortunate or religious hypocrites at the top of his list of bad guys.
The Bible says that few are destined to live with Jesus, for “wide is the gate, and broad is the way, that leads to destruction…but small is the gate and narrow the way that leads to life and only a few will find it” (Matthew 7:13-14).
According to Revelation 17:8, the names of the “elect” were “written in the book of life from the foundation of the world.” In other words, God created each human, so he knows how each will act in advance. If most are destined for the eternal fires of hell, what was the point of their being sent to earth to begin with and why is God not responsible for this outcome?
There are many more issues that could be addressed, from the so-called Original Sin of Adam and Eve, which is said to contaminate everyone who follows, to whether faith in Jesus automatically leads to “good works” and salvation. Two millennia of Christian tradition and what the Bible actually says often seem to be at odds.
In the next section, we will draw some conclusions about what kind of spiritual path would take into account all we have learned thus far.