Analyzing Christianity

Part of a series about My Faith Journey.

When I was in the throes of my faith crisis, I was eager to investigate Mormonism and deconstruct / analyze what I had (and hadn't) been taught, but I was reluctant to investigate the veracity of Jesus. I had heard that many exmormons eventually find their way to atheism. I had also heard that many (nevermo) Christians have faith crises as well. All of this made me nervous about what I might find. I really like(d) the idea of Jesus and I didn't want to see him deconstructed.

However, I knew that if I was going to be intellectually honest during my faith journey, I would need to investigate Christianity as well.

Origins of the Old Testament

In addition to researching the New Testament, I thought I should research the Old Testament which the NT builds on.

Borrowing & Remixing Myths

What I discovered is that Judaism pulls a lot of its mythology from Egyptian, Sumerian, Babylonian, and Canaanite myths, transforming the stories along the way to fit their own religious views.

See the following videos:

A History of God (The Polytheistic Origins of Christianity and Judaism)

Pagan Origins of Judaism

Where The Old Testament Gets Its Ideas From

Historicity Problems

I further learned that a number of Old Testament stories have no historical support:

The Evolution of Monotheism

I heard a secular anthropologist explain that monotheism succeeds over polytheism because it builds a stronger national identity. We see a natural progression over time within the Hebrew nation:

Note that monotheism originates when the Israelite nation is being taken captive by their Assyrian and Babylonian neighbors. Right at the time when Israelites need to "pull together" to conserve their culture, monotheism becomes their theology, exactly in line with the anthropological explanation.

Sacrificial Magic

I also learned that the Jewish custom of sacrificing animals originates with the pagan notion of "blood magic", i.e. by sacrificing a life, you can appease the gods.

The story of Abraham being commanded to sacrifice his son Isaac is a reference to the practice of human sacrifice, which was performed by the "heathen" nations that surrounded Israel, and by Israelites themselves (for which they were constantly berated by God). When Abraham was told by an angel at the very end "No, don't sacrifice your son!", that was a message to Israelites to not sacrifice their children (as was done by followers of Moloch). When the Lord later provides a ram for Abraham to sacrifice, that was a message that animals would be substituted for humans. (Though multiple animals might need to take the place of one human.)

Building on this was the notion of Jesus sacrifice. If sacrificing humans or animals could appease the gods (or "God", singular), then sacrificing a (half-)god (such as Jesus) could appease the gods forever, thereby putting an end to the practice of sacrifice entirely. (This might also represent an evolution in human morality and overcoming some of our primitive superstitions about blood magic.)

Disillusionment

I learned that there are orthodox Jews who experience faith crises when they discover these unpleasant truths about their scriptures. I have to admit that I felt a little let down. I had been raised to believe that the scriptures in the Old Testament were written (correctly) the first time and then dutifully copied over the years. Instead, I discovered that the Old Testament was in flux throughout the history of the ancient Jews and was revised, expanded on, and redacted over the years.

Origins of the New Testament

I originally believed that the stories of Jesus were literal, historical, accounts. I also believed that the teachings of Christianity had connections only to ancient Judaism. After some study, I learned that Christian beliefs were an evolution and an amalgam of religions / mythologies / philosophies that developed earlier and were found throughout the Roman empire. Also worth noting is that Christianity was originally a Jewish splinter group, much like the Pharisees, Sadducees, Scribes, Essenes. (Some might say Christianity started as a "cult".)

External Influences on Christianity

There are a number of other parallels between Greek mythology and the gospels.

Other Jesus-like Figures

Numerous countries throughout the Roman Empire had mythologies that featured figures similar to Jesus:

See also this Wikipedia page on Dying-and-rising gods.

More information about how the Christ myth connects to other world religions can be found in this Wikipedia article and in this video.

Funny thing, when I was a believer, I could always readily accept the connections between, say Egyptian mythology and Greek mythology because I accepted that those were man-made stories. But I stopped just short of asking "What if Greek mythology also influenced Christian mythology?" That's because I always believed that the stories about Christ were real, historical, events, not myths. Now that I was in a post-faith / skeptical mindset, I was able to see how all mythologies have built on each other and were remixes of what had come before -- including Christianity.

At this point, I was prompted to ask myself a difficult question: If I don't believe that any of those other gods were real (Inanna, Osiris, Dionysus, Zalmoxis, etc.), how sure can I really be that Jesus was real? Could Jesus be the only exception?

The Disharmony of the Gospels

I discovered that there are numerous problems with the gospel accounts in the New Testament: no first-hand accounts, evolving narrative, embellished / exaggerated claims, disagreements / conflicts between the gospel accounts, historicity issues, etc. This was a real letdown for me.

Examples of disagreements between gospel accounts:

These episodes of the Reasonable Doubts podcast take a critical view of the gospels and explains in detail how the various accounts don't actually harmonize and evinces a fictional narrative, rather than a historical one.

 

This video features Bart Ehrman explaining some of the problems with the gospel narratives, and historical discrepancies and inaccuracies.

Historicity Claims

The only events in Jesus' life that all historians can agree on are 1) Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist, and 2) Jesus was crucified at the order of Pontius Pilate. Everything else is up for grabs.

There are a number of events recorded in the New Testament which cannot be corroborated by any external / secondary sources:

This article presents some of the major problems for trusting the historicity of the New Testament.

See also this article: The evidence about Jesus is weaker than you think.

See this video: The Unreliability of the New Testament which shows how the New Testament doesn't stand up to basic standards for historical reliability.

It's worth noting that, when scholarly research is done on a historical figure, usually that figure comes into clearer focus; we learn more about them and they stand out in sharper relief. As scholarly research has been done on Jesus, he's become foggier, blurrier, and harder to pin down. Why has this occurred? Is it because he's an amalgam of several characters, some historical, some fictional? Is it because tales about him have passed through many hands and become more embellished with each retelling?

Divinity Claims

Some terms that I learned in my studies were "High Christology" and "Low Christology":

The order in which the gospels were written go as follows:

  1. Mark: Jesus is depicted as a radical separatist leader. His disciples frequently misunderstand him and are puzzled by his sayings. No account of virgin birth or resurrection are recorded. "Son of Man" is a common title used for Jesus. This is the lowest of "Low Christology".
  2. Matthew: Jesus is depicted as a fulfilment of numerous Messianic prophecies recorded in the Tanakh (Old Testament).
  3. Luke: Narrative is greatly embellished, with vignettes that have no historical basis: global taxation requiring return to homeland, slaughter of the infants, Romans offering to free a prisoner on Yom Kippur. Narrative about "sweating great drops of blood" added.
  4. John: Huge departure from the synoptic gospels with as-yet-unrecorded tales of the life of Jesus. "Son of God" is a common title used for Jesus, and he frequently declares himself as such, which is something not (often?) done in the previous gospels. This is the highest of "High Christology".

Note that as the gospel accounts roll out, Jesus incrementally moves from "Low Christology" to "High Christology", with prophetic fulfilments and fanciful events added along the way. This suggests an evolving "deification" narrative and calls into question the divinity claims.

These episodes of the Mormon Stories podcast give an academic introduction to the New Testament and explore things like high/low Christology, historicity, and the like.

The Christ Myth Theory

The "Christ Myth" theory is an (admittedly) fringe theory that postulates that Jesus never existed at all, but was instead a completely fictional character that was fleshed-out over time by numerous different authors as the story passed through various hands, being modified a little bit each time (kind of like the "telephone" game).

In this video historian Richard Carrier explains how Jesus may have been more of a legend that evolved over time, rather than a real, historical, figure. See also: Why Invent the Jesus?

Bart Ehrman & Robert Price Debate - Did Jesus Exist

This episode of the Naked Mormonism podcast features an interview with David Fitzgerald who discusses the Christ Myth theory.

Was Jesus a Roman Invention?

So, if Jesus was a made-up character, it raises the question: Who made him up?

The Romans had a big problem in their country: They had an unassimilated religious sect (Jews) who had their own internal authority / power structures and were hostile to Roman rule. Frequent tensions arose between the Roman government and the Jewish leadership. Violent confrontations between Romans and Jews occasionally broke out, but these skirmishes only seemed to galvanize the Jews against the Romans. How could the Jews be turned?

Consider the following points from the gospel accounts:

There's the old saying that "the pen is mightier than the sword". What if some canny Roman author decided to invent a folk hero that played to the people's desire for someone who showed humanity (so the tale would catch on). Alternatively, this hypothetical Roman author could have hijacked an existing, forming, legend about a Hebrew messiah. He could have then added some details which portray this messianic figure as being anti-Jewish and pro-Rome. It would be a brilliant way to subvert the Jewish nation. What if the plan worked? What if it was a raging success?

It is worth noting that the earliest gospel account that we have is Mark, and it was written in Latin, the language of the Romans. Later gospel accounts were written in Greek to give them a broader readership among Greek-speaking audiences. If Jesus truly was a Jewish folk hero, the earliest tales about him should be written in Hebrew or Aramaic, but they're not. Makes me wonder.

This documentary makes the case that Jesus was an invention of educated Romans who wanted to turn Jews from their own traditions / leadership structures and steer them toward being devoted to Rome.

How to Become Immortal

Significantly, the Gospel of John begins by saying "In the beginning was the word and the word was with God and the word was God... and the word was made flesh." Perhaps this is a wink and a nod to the reader that Jesus started as a fictional character, but became a "real" ideal in the minds of many. The "word" truly was made "flesh".

Even if Jesus was a fictional character, that does not imply that he has no value. Personally, most of the figures that I look up to are fictional: Mr. Spock, Frodo Baggins, Harry Potter, and Luke Skywalker, to name a few. People will still be talking about these fictional characters long after I'm dead and gone.

If you're made of flesh, you'll die and be forgotten eventually. If you want to be immortal, you have to be made of paper and ink. Perhaps this is how Jesus gained his immortality...

Disillusionment

I learned that there are mainstream Christians who discover these problems with the New Testament and experience faith crises as a result.

Problem Areas

Problematic Passages

We often talk about the virtue of "being Christlike" or trying to follow the example of Jesus. We talk about the scriptures as being full of divine teachings, but there are a number of unpleasant passages in the New Testament that are often ignored. We tend to pick-and-choose which scriptures we follow.

Some examples of bad behavior on the part of Jesus:

See Jesus Behaving Badly for more examples.

Mormon temples have cash registers at the clothing dispensary for people who rent clothing. If I were to see a woman using one of those registers to make change for a patron, and I decided to whip her while calling her a dog, it could be argued that I was behaving in a Christlike fashion -- according to The Book.

Let's face it: the version of Jesus that we were taught in Sunday School is a defanged version of the Jesus recorded in the Gospels. The Jesus whose example we seek to emulate is a caricature of the Jesus that's actually depicted in the Bible -- and the caricature looks better! What this tells me is that human morality has evolved in the last 2000 years. The "great exemplar" we can envision in our mind's eye is actually better than the Jesus recorded in the New Testament.

The Problem with the Atonement

In order to accept the concept of the atonement, you have to buy into several, awful, premises:

  1. God made you flawed. [creation]
  2. God hates you for being flawed (even though he made you that way). [fall]
  3. Therefore, someone has to get hurt (either you or his favorite son). [atonement]

And I'm supposed to believe that this is the reasoning of a "loving" God? It seems far more likely to me that the atonement doctrine is intended to manipulate people by capitalizing on the fact that everyone makes mistakes and making people feel either afraid that they'll be punished for their sins, or feel guilty for breaking a rule & placing that burden on Jesus. (Our sense of empathy makes us flinch at the idea of someone else getting hurt.)

Christian missionaries preached to indigenous peoples to save them from their barbaric traditions of human sacrifice and cannibalism (among other things). The irony is that the central component of Christianity is a (super-)human sacrifice. A secondary irony is that the ritual of the sacrament / eucharist is a figurative (or in the cast of Catholicism, literal) act of cannibalism, as we are eating the flesh and drinking the blood of Christ. All the Christians did was move these barbaric traditions from literal to figurative. Slight progress, but still barbaric in its own right.

How Christianity Has Evolved

I learned that various teachings & doctrines of Christianity have morphed and changed over time.

This video sums up a lot of the doubts regarding Christianity. One of the biggest things that leapt out at me from this was learning that the concept of the Trinity evolved over time. Originally it was just "God" and then when Jesus entered the scene, they had to make room for two gods, so they had a "Binity" of sorts for awhile. Much later, the Holy Ghost entered the scene and they had to make room for him (it?). (Though there is still a fair amount of disagreement among Christian sects as to what role the Holy Ghost plays.) Aside: This evolution of the trinity is actually very similar to Joseph Smith's evolving view of the Godhead.

Later on, Christians were accused of being polytheists, because they were believing in multiple gods. Well, that just wouldn't do. Polytheism was widely regarded as a pagan / heathen practice, so they had to come up with a "three-in-one" concept to convince everyone (including themselves) that they were still monotheists. Hence, the "Trinity" was born.

For those who are critically-minded, here is a list of problems with Christianity.

Humanist Teachings

Of all the characteristics of Jesus, the thing I find the most (ahem) redemptive, are the Humanist teachings attributed to him.

Jesus as an "Everyman's God"

In 1995, Joan Osborne released a single called "What if God Was One of Us?" It depicted god as being just an everyday, downcast, stranger. Here's the chorus:

What if God was one of us?

Just a slob like one of us

Just a stranger on the bus

Tryin' to make his way home?

When this song was first released, it was panned by the Catholic church as being "blasphemous". I remember at the time asking myself: why would they say that? After all, wasn't Jesus the guy that was born in a manger because there was no room at the inn for him? Wasn't this the guy who dressed in plain clothes and went about without purse or scrip?

One of my favorite New Testament passages is "Inasmuch as you have done it unto the least of these, my brethren, you have done it unto me." The song "A poor wayfaring man of grief" was probably inspired by that passage, I'm guessing Joan Osborne was inspired by it too. The direction all of these things are pointing us is toward helping the poor and acknowledging the dignity of each human soul... which sounds a lot like something Jesus would've preached.

The hero we need, even though we don't deserve him

The story of Jesus emerged at the height of the Roman Empire when life was cheap and man-made suffering abounded: torture, starvation, massacres, and slavery were commonplace. The people desperately needed a hero who embodied all of the Humanistic ideals they couldn't find in the Roman Empire.

Enter Jesus: someone who cared for the poor & needy, someone who comforted widows, someone who loved children, someone who spoke out against the corrupt leaders of the day. I think these teachings are what helped the legend to "catch fire", particularly among the lower-classes of the Roman Empire. Jesus was the hero the people needed. Funny thing, we still need a hero like that today...

Jesus as a moral compass

I think Jesus is useful as an archetype for ideal human behavior. "What would Jesus do?" is an excellent question for people to ask themselves when they're in a moral quandary. An atheist could probably give the "right" answer to the WWJD question, which tells me that morality can be found inside of each of us (and is a result of how we've evolved to be a cooperative species). If the WWJD question helps people to get in touch with their own, internal, moral compass, so much the better.

As an aside: I have found that asking yourself "What would Buddha do?", "What would Epictetus do?", "What would Superman do?, or "What would Yoda do?" " all work just as well as asking "What would Jesus do?" Turns out all you need to do to help you get in touch with your own moral compass is imagine some idealized figure.

Jesus as a symbol of Humanism

I've heard it said that Buddhism was the first attempt at psychology. Most religions consist of a set of practices and supernatural beliefs, but not so with Buddhism. Instead, Buddhism focuses more on perceptions, cognitions, and aligning one's expectations with reality. It fits the definition of psychology much more closely than the traditional definition of religion.

Perhaps, in a similar fashion, Christianity is the first attempt at Humanism. Famous stories & parables from the life of Jesus include: The Good Samaritan, mercy shown to the woman taken in adultery, healing the sick, and sacrificing oneself to save others. These are all very Humanistic qualities.

Perhaps it is a wink and a nod to us that Jesus is depicted not as a spirit, not as an animalistic god, not as something alien and otherworldly, but as a human, someone we can relate to and connect with. The depiction of Jesus as a human also encourages us to find those Christlike ideals inside ourselves, and manifest them outwardly.

So, How Do I Feel About Jesus Now?

I think a man named Jesus probably did exist 2000+ years ago, but he was likely just a man who was made into a legend. Jesus can be compared to King Arthur in that regard: both were ordinary, men, but following their deaths, the stories about them spread and morphed until the real, historical, figure was distorted. That said, the legendary figure is doubtless more interesting -- and probably more valuable -- than the historical figure.

Whether Jesus did or didn't exist (either as a divine being or a regular person) is less important than what he stands for. The concept of Jesus is more significant than the historical Jesus. People needs examples to look to.

Earlier I said I was reluctant to let go of the idea of Jesus. What I discovered is that I can become disillusioned of the fanciful narratives and exaggerated claims, but I don't have to let go of the idea of Jesus. That idea has value.

I feel absolutely no need or desire to make disparaging remarks about Jesus or belittle his followers. That kind of behavior is rude and obnoxious, and not something Jesus would do. ;-)