Guest blogger Jim Benton, scourge of faiths big and small, pokes a few innovative holes in the logical fabric of Christianity.
Introduction — Joseph, the ‘Five Rocks,’ and the Problem of Communication.
This article began as a series of four comments at Debunking Christianity in response to the second of a series of essays by a relatively new member named Joseph. Joseph is an ex-minister and counselor in a conservative Christian denomination who had found his faith weakening even before he came to DC. I am not sure if it is accurate to say that our influence — I am no longer a member, but an almost daily commenter there — ‘completed his deconversion’ or if we merely provided a ‘soft landing’ when he parachuted from a religion he could no longer accept.
Joseph has become a member and has begun a series of articles on the ‘5 Big Rocks’ — “five major hurdles I encountered to faith in Christianity, culminating in my deconversion.” His second piece was on “The Problem of Communication”, and since both he and John Loftus have given me credit for inventing this term in this context, he asked me to comment extensively on it. Those of you who know me will realise that I couldn’t resist, but comments can get lost, so I have rewritten them into one (lengthy, of course its lengthy, it’s me) article.
To put it briefly, the ‘problem of communication’ holds that it is necessary, if you accept the ideas behind Christianity, to accept that Jesus (or God, for Christadelphians and others who are Christians but deny Jesus’ ‘divinity’) was an incredibly inefficient and incompetent conveyor of his ‘message’. I’ve argued that the problem of communication is a loaded gun, loaded with at least four bullets, and every shot creates a mortal wound in the body of Christian belief.
The First Bullet: the Problem of Paul the Revisionist
If Jesus was a real person — and I believe he was — and if there is even a fragment of truth in at least the Synoptic Gospels — and again, I think there is much myth but a core of truth in them — then we know a few things.
Jesus spent some months in the company of disciples, wandering around the Galilee, preaching. We may have only a small fraction of his preaching — the words attributed to him in Gospels can be spoken in one evening. But the disciples heard all of his sermons, parables, and lectures, at least once they had chosen to follow him.
But they didn’t just follow him. They lived with him, traveled with him, ate with him. Most of all, they talked with him. We don’t know what they said. Certainly some of it was trivial, discussions of the scenery, the meal, whatever. But much of the conversation must have centered around his preaching. He had those months to speak with them — and if James was, in fact, his brother, the two of them had had decades together.
And, supposedly, after his resurrection, he met with the main disciples again and spoke with them, now free to discuss in detail all he wished to say, those things he wished all mankind would hear.
And then, according to Christianity, some time later he appears to a rabbi who had been his persecutor, and commissions him to preach in his name. But he doesn’t say, “Paul, go to Jerusalem, meet my disciples, listen to them, and learn what I spoke to them. You are so great a preacher that you can take what they tell you and go forth and preach it to the Gentiles”.
No. Paul is proud to say (in Galatians 1) that he did not get his gospel from any man, but from the vision he had, from God, not from man; that he did not go to Jerusalem and speak to ‘those who were Apostles before I was’. No, he went off immediately to preach. Only three years later did he decide to meet Peter, and spend all of fifteen days with him. Even then, he says as if it is proof of his own special knowledge, he didn’t see any other Apostle except James, the Lord’s brother.
Fourteen years later he finally goes back to Jerusalem but ‘as to those who seemed to be important… those men added nothing to my message’.
And later ‘when Peter came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face’. And in Galatians you see his contempt for the false message of James, the Lord’s brother, the one who had deceived Peter and even Barnabas until Paul (who had never met Jesus or heard him preach) came along to set them right.
Think about how poor a communicator Jesus must have been. Months to convey his message, publicly and privately, and still he needed Paul to come along and set everyone straight. (And it wasn’t just an accident that people misunderstood, not according to Paul, who modestly tells us he had been chosen by God at birth to correct the misunderstandings of the poor followers who actually heard Jesus speak.)
And he was so needed. The poor followers heard Jesus say that every jot and tittle of the law held, and curse anyone who should make the slightest change in it. It took Paul to tell them he only meant that for the next few months until his death and resurrection. Jesus told his disciples not to preach to the Gentiles and Samaritans, it was Paul who knew that simply meant it was his (Paul’s) job to do it.
So much of Paul’s writing is explaining to people how they got the message wrong, attacking all sorts of errors that were prevalent even in those first thirty years after Jesus. (And this society was, as Christians like to remind us, basically pre-literate, a society where people’s memories are so much better than in a literate one. This is why, they say, we can treat books written decades after the fact as, well, as Gospel.) How could someone with as vital a message as Jesus’ was have managed to convey it so utterly incompetently that even after the months of preaching, he still needed someone to come along and straighten up the mess he’d made? You’d think the Son of God, True God of True God would be able to do a better job than that?
(Of course, you could simply dismiss Paul as a meddling know-it-all, a mystic who imagined this vision was the truth, who created his own version of Christianity. But that doesn’t exactly blunt the bullet either, does it?)
The Second Bullet: the Problem of the Non-Writer Messiah
Most Christians have to accept that Jesus, as Divine, foresaw the writing of the Bible. (Christadelphians and the like merely kick this problem up to ‘God’. But did he, somehow, forget to pass this on to Jesus?) He foresaw that there would be three gospels written, pretty consistently giving some of his teachings — and a fourth that would contradict the story in almost every detail. (And a dozen others that would also purport to tell his story, but which would be rejected by the Council of Nicea, even though they had been used by the many competing groups that called themselves Christians.)
He foresaw that Paul would, on the basis of the vision Jesus was to give him and his special selection ‘from his mother’s womb’ by God, then come along to ‘set everybody straight’. And that others would write Epistles in Paul’s name that would be included in the canon, like Hebrews, the Timothys and Titus. And that other writers would write in the name of Peter, and Jude, and John. (And again many others would be written in the names of the other Apostles and be rejected — hundreds of years after he had died.)
Jesus probably foresaw — and since he is shown with a sense of humor, probably laughed loudly at — the various ‘infancy gospels’ that so hilariously tried to tell his early story.
He foresaw the narrative of Acts, and, probably, the other novel-like stories that were considered canonical by some Christians but again failed to be included in the final cut.
And he saw a writer use the common format of ‘apocalyptic stories’ (that had started with Daniel) to tell a story to hearten the Christians when they were being persecuted — and the vast confusion it would cause when future Christians, not understanding the type of literature it was, or the standard imagery it used, saw it as a prophecy of the future instead of a simple statement about the Roman Empire. (And again, we can see him foreseeing the other apocalyptic stories, such as the Shepherd of Hermas and the vision Peter had of heaven that were finally excluded.)
And of course, he saw how people would get confused over the various writings, how they would dispute the meaning of every verse, how they would even kill each other in great numbers because of how they differed over what the words meant.
(He probably even foresaw a ‘renegade Irish Anglican priest’ named Darby, 1 3/4 millennia later, taking half a verse from one epistle and building the magnificent absurdity of ‘the rapture’ on that one snippet. And he probably shook his head in sadness that people would actually believe such nonsense.)
And somehow he never had the following, simple idea.
“Hey, I could avoid all this hassle. I don’t need to count on the faulty memories and confusion of my disciples. I don’t need a Paul. People don’t have to start killing each other because they misunderstood what I said, or what Paul thought I meant, or because they weren’t sure whether or not I started a Church that would last though the centuries that would protect my ideas — or if instead everyone should understand what I said on their own.
I have this wonderful message, from God, from myself, that will tell all of mankind the secret of salvation, the truth about heaven and hell, what God wants them to do, and what it is wrong for them to do.
Hey, why don’t I write my OWN book!?”
There was no reason for him not to. No one claims he was illiterate — like some branches of Islam claim Mohammed was. No one claims he was unfamiliar with the idea of scripture, since he was Jewish and knew the writings of the Prophets. In no way would this ‘hinder man’s free choice whether to believe him or not’, it would only tell them what it was he wanted them to make that choice about. He had no problem, supposedly, in having his words quoted. He told his disciples to go out and preach his message to all nations.
But somehow he failed, as the person who best knew his message, to do the simple thing of writing it down.
(And again, you can argue that he didn’t because, as a prophet predicting the immediate coming of the end of the world and the coming of the new — within the lifetime of his hearers — he saw no reason to write his message down for the benefit of those who he never thought would be born, for a time he never expected to happen. But that interpretation too is its own bullet.)
The Third Bullet: the Problem of Text Transmission
To explain this bullet, I’d like you all to use your imagination and journey with me back in time. (This is meant to be an impressionistic description. I may have gotten some details wrong, but I hope you’ll only dispute me if they are relevant to the conclusion.)
Come with me to the 10th century, to a small abbey, and imagine yourself as a monk, working in the scriptorium, making copies of precious manuscripts of the Fathers of the Church and, most especially, of the Bible.
It’s cold, first of all. No central heating, and the Abbot doesn’t want to take the chance of a large fire in the room, for fear of burning up the precious contents.
It’s dark too, lit only by candles, carefully shaded for further protection. There’s no window letting in sunlight, not for many years to come.
You’re hungry. You know some monasteries have — comparatively — ample diets. Some even supply meat twice a week. But your abbot is a pious man, shunning such corrupting luxuries. Besides, it is a fast day today, and you haven’t eaten yet, even though you’ve been up since 3:00 AM.
It’s true you are so used to the stench of unwashed bodies that you don’t notice that, and you do wash your hands before touching the precious words.
You settle in on your backless, unpadded bench. The pains in your back and your rear you have long since offered up to God, a minor price to pay to insure that yet another copy of his priceless words — or the words of the wise Fathers of the Church that interpreted them — exists in the world.
And so you set to work. And you groan as you see the book you must copy. Yes, it is precious because of its words, and also because it was itself copied by the Blessed Anselm, the companion of the Abbey’s founder whom the Abbey is already referring to as a Saint. Sadly, his renown is more for his piety than for his penmanship. And those visions he is known for all too often came here in the scriptorium. Surely it was understood that they were a distraction, but the result from your point of view was that he occasionally dropped lines from his work. You’ve spent many a day checking every line of his scrawl for accuracy.
At least you were luckier than your fellow monk, Brother Theodore, who has been put to work correcting Brother Rollo’s manuscripts. Rollo — you knew him briefly before he was requested to leave — is the younger son of a local Lord, and had been accepted into the Abbey as a favor to his father. But Rollo didn’t consider it a favor, and he particularly hated his work in the scriptorium, so much that he needed fortification — by use of the Abbey’s wine cellar — before he set to work, and, it was said, even during work. The wine did not affect his penmanship or his considerable learning, it must be said. But it added to his ‘playfulness’. He would deliberately miscopy words, putting heretical thoughts in the mouths of the Fathers. He even, and you know his soul will pay a fearsome price for it, tampered with God’s Word Itself. And his learning let him do it so subtly that many manuscripts were sent on with his ‘corrections’ before he went too far and deliberately left the ‘not’ out from several of the Commandments. It has taken years to check the books he worked on, to recopy them and burn the pages he had so amended.
Before you began, you nodded to Brother John, the aged, who has spent many years at the same holy work you are beginning. It cost him much of his sight, but not his memory, and he has come up with an ingenious method of guiding his hand as he forms the letters and words of the Prophets without the ability or need to consult the manuscript he is ‘copying’.
You pick up your goose quill — once again marveling at God’s ingenuity in using such a common animal to provide the tool for preserving His words — and begin the task. Over and over you dip it, read a few words from the original, and inscribe them on a virgin surface. Then again, dip, read, write, creating yet one more copy of the Word of God for a new Church to own. Someday, you dream, every city, every town might have its own complete copy of the Holy Book, that even the more pious of the rich might be able to own one. And you go on, dip, read, write, even being able to complete a whole sentence with one quill-full of ink.
AND THUS WERE THE WORDS OF GOD, OF THE PROPHETS, OF THE CHURCH FATHERS AND THE PHILOSOPHERS PRESERVED FOR FIFTEEN HUNDRED YEARS.
Is it any wonder that every manuscript we have of the Bible differs from the others in small or serious ways? That books about the ideas of Christianity were lost forever because there were too few copies? That even the works of Aristotle — so important to later Christian philosophy — disappeared from the consciousness of the West for hundreds of years, until they were retransmitted to Christendom by the scholars of the High Muslim Empire?
It didn’t have to be this way. True, Gutenberg’s invention required many discoveries before it was possible, but the used of carved wooden blocks for printing did not. (In fact, the Chinese were using it — though for pictures, not words — a hundred years after the Bible was complete.) The Israelites, the Greeks and Romans, any of them could have pioneered the technique. The lack was imagination, not means.
The God of the Old Testament spends time describing the building of the Ark. Later minute details of the Temple are put down. How easy for Jesus, who was a worker in wood, to describe, briefly, the technique of preserving his own words, many copies at a time, so that his message, in its original form, would have been spread to so many hearers, so much more accurately.
(And think, for a minute, how much respect he and the Christians would have gained throughout the Empire if they had taught this great innovation. Not just a preacher, not just a teacher, but Jesus would have been esteemed as an inventor as well. How much more convincing wouldn’t his other words have been if they were preserved through such brilliance?)
But no, he refrained from giving humankind this gift. He knew, supposedly, as ‘Son of God,’ what would happen to his message, how it would be argued over, how it would proceed so slowly to be transmitted. He apparently didn’t care enough to make sure that it would be heard. And if he was merely an ‘inspired prophet’ conveying God’s word, teaching mankind a lesson through his death, why didn’t the Designer of the Ark, the Architect of the Temple, invent printing?
(Or again, he didn’t give this idea because he didn’t know of it. That he was no more knowledgeable than his contemporaries, that his idea of God was his own and not God’s. But again, that is another bullet.)
The Fourth Bullet: the Problem of the Low-Profile Resurrection.
Jesus, according to almost all Christians, came to Earth with a message for all humankind. (They may believe there were other purposes as well, but there was certainly a message — even though they don’t agree what it was.) And the resurrection was the clincher to prove that the message was from God, the one irrefutable proof. Think about how wonderfully he used this proof to get his message out.
Think about that scene in the Sanhedrin council. Now the Sanhedrin was almost certainly innocent of Jesus’ death, despite the Gospels. If they could tolerate the Essenes, or a John the Baptist, if they smiled at Messianic pretenders, if they could refrain from attacking the Samaritans (Shia to the Orthodox’ Sunnis) they would hardly have attacked the far more mainstream Jesus. But certainly they knew of him and his crucifixion. And they were the central body of the Jews, influential in religion and government.
How wonderful it was when Jesus appeared in front of that meeting and showed his resurrected body. How incredible it must have been, seeing all these great thinkers and leaders bowing down to him, and then going out to spread his message to all Judaism. Oh, some did not believe them, but so many did that almost all the Jews throughout Jerusalem and then the world came over, en masse, to Christianity, with only a minor fragment holding out and refusing to believe.
What a wonderful idea it was to appear there. Only, somehow, Jesus never came up with the idea to make such an appearance.
But there was the appearance before Herod — who might, in fact, actually have been involved in Jesus’ death. He wasn’t the ruler his father had been, but he was still a powerful leader, and, by some, respected for that power, and at least the Gospels claim he was open to the possibility of a resurrection. So when Jesus stood before him, showing him that death could not prevent the message from getting out, his temporal power and connection with Rome lent the entire weight of the monarchy to the support of Christianity.
Or it would have, had Jesus thought to appear before him, but — oops — he somehow didn’t do that either.
But maybe he’d given up on the Jews, and realized the best place for his message to be heard was Rome, that it was for the gentiles of the Empire. Paul thought so — despite the fact that Jesus specifically ordered his apostles not to preach to the gentiles or Samaritans, yet another of those ‘corrections’ Paul made.
So picture the look on Pilate’s face when Jesus walked into his chamber. (If there is any truth at all to the crucifixion story, it must have been Pilate who signed the order for it to be done.) Pilate, that weak, corrupt, credulous man, how shocked he was when Jesus appeared before him. “I’m baaack!” His centurions had told him that Jesus was dead and buried, but here he was, still showing the wounds he had received, the hole in his side, the marks of the nails.
Picture how Pilate fell prostrate before him in terror. Picture how eagerly he accepted Jesus’ forgiveness, how glad he was to follow Jesus’ command: “Gather the centurions who witnessed my death, come with them and me to Rome, and testify to the Emperor what you have seen and done. Tell him that my Father is the True God”.
What a wonderful idea. Even if the Emperor had been dubious (and certainly, despite Tiberius’ ‘eccentricities,’ he was a better candidate to hear than would his successor, Caligula, be) the Roman nobility would have heard the story. No need to wait 30 years for Paul to get there, almost 300 years for Constantine’s conversion. The appearance was the thing that immediately made Christianity a major religion throughout the Empire, led to the conquering of it through the cross.
Throughout the known world the banner of Christianity would have been carried by Roman soldiers, convinced by the Emperor’s story of his own Prefect’s testimony, his own sight of the crucified and resurrected Jesus.
Another wonderful opportunity to spread the message to the world.
Another missed opportunity.
But, of course, Jesus wasn’t interested in rulers and kings and emperors. He wanted to speak to the common people, to spread his word through their witness and testimony. Maybe he didn’t want to appear before the emperor — though he changed his mind on that one too, if you accept Constantine’s vision.
So he just appeared in the central square of Jerusalem, in the temple — still standing, it was thirty years before it would be destroyed — and spoke to the people, telling them the wondrous news of the Gospel. And how they listened, seeing him there, radiant, yet still with the mortal wounds showing on his body.
There were people from all the lands — Jerusalem was the center of Jewry, but Jews had spread throughout the Empire. All of them went back to spread the word. Even the man ‘from the highest of priestly ranks’ who was to father Josephus, that greatest Jewish historian, might have been there, and could have told his son the story, so that it would have been written down.
If only Jesus had gotten the idea to make such an appearance.
This is why the resurrection is such a problem. Not because it is ‘miraculous’. (I don’t accept miracles, but believers do, and saying it was ‘miraculous’ is an argument, in their minds, in its favor.) But because, if it happened, Jesus must have been so totally, cluelessly, unthinkingly dumb to have missed every single opportunity to use this great miracle to spread the message he supposedly had. He appeared, supposedly, before his disciples, biased witnesses, desperately fighting to keep the dream alive. And they managed to spread the word. But how much quicker the word could have been spread.
The Resurrection. What a miracle! What a bundle of wasted opportunities!
(Either that, or the whole thing was an invention based on a brief, misunderstood, glimpse — in the early morning — by Peter, of someone who looked like Jesus. That one scene — as Guignebert argues — could have been the entire inspiration for the myth that only later was added to with stories of the empty tomb and the meetings behind closed doors with the disciples.)
Either way, that bullet is the fatal one.