Analyzing Christianity and Judaism
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 and its predecessor Judaism as well.
In addition to researching the New Testament, I thought I should research the Old Testament which the NT builds on.
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:
I further learned that a number of Old Testament stories have no historical support:
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.
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.)
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 that minor errors had only crept in due to mistranslation problems. 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, with wholesale fabrications included along the way.
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".)
Consider this pair of quotes:
"Nothing happens to any man that he is not formed by nature to bear." -- Marcus Aurelius
1 Corinthians 10:13 There hath no temptation taken you but such as is common to man: but God is faithful, who will not suffer you to be tempted above that ye are able; but will with the temptation also make a way to escape, that ye may be able to bear it.
(Marcus Aurelius said it first.)
Numerous countries throughout the Roman Empire had mythologies that featured figures similar to Jesus:
See also this Wikipedia page on Dying-and-rising gods.
See this video: Christianity and the Astrological Nature of Jesus Christ
Most (if not all) of the countries mentioned above were united under Roman rule at one point. It is not absurd to think that Roman citizens would synthesize the myths of the various Roman-occupied countries and merge them into a single figure. (That could be viewed as an example of the people "uniting" under Roman rule.)
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 -- including Christianity -- have built on each other and were remixes of what came before.
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, Mithra, Zalmoxis, Tammuz, etc.), how sure can I be that Jesus was real? Could Jesus be the only exception?
See: What about Jesus? by Richard Packham.
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.
An alarming fact that I heard: There are more variations of the New Testament than there are words in the New Testament.
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, that figure usually 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 distorted with each retelling?
Some terms that I learned in my studies were "Low Christology" and "High Christology":
The order in which the gospels were written are as follows:
Note that as the gospel accounts roll out, Jesus incrementally moves from "Low Christology" to "High Christology", with prophetic fulfilments and miraculous events added along the way. This suggests an evolving "deification" narrative and calls into question the divinity claims. Ever play
The Telephone Game? Early gospel writers played it too...
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 situation is actually worse than the evolution from low to high Christology. If you look at the website Early Christian Writings, you can see a timeline of Christian records. The first uncontested account that we have is Paul's first letter to the Thessalonians. (The early passion narrative is challenged by numerous scholars and the presumed 'Q' Gospel is non-existent.) Gospel accounts do not show up until after Paul has written 8-10 letters.
What this suggests is that Paul invented Christianity (not Jesus), and fabricated (or modified, or exaggerated) the Jesus story to help win converts to his church. It appears as though he was composing the eventual Gospel narrative piecemeal until later authors stitched together a more cohesive story from the pieces teased out by Paul.
Also disheartening is that several of Paul's (later) letters are forgeries, such as Second Thessalonians. (The tell is the part where the writer makes a bold claim that he is Paul; writers typically don't make a bold claim about who they are in a letter they are writing.) This suggests that later authors, eager to get into the game, posed as Paul so they could get a foothold in this forming religion.
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 (again, kind of like the "telephone" game).
Historian Richard Carrier explains how Jesus may have been more of a legend that evolved over time, rather than a real, historical, figure in the following videos:
This episode of the Naked Mormonism podcast features an interview with David Fitzgerald who discusses the Christ Myth theory.
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, narrative 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.
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...
I learned that there are mainstream Christians (including Exmormons who turn to Christianity after Mormonism) who discover these problems with the New Testament and experience faith crises as a result.
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:
Numerous followers of Jesus have cited these examples as justification for their own bad behavior (e.g. Crusades, Salem witch trials, Inquisition, etc.).
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.
In order to accept the concept of the atonement, you have to buy into several, awful, premises:
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 making said mistakes, 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 (that builds on the primitive notion of "blood magic"). 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. Small progress, but still barbaric in its own right.
The atonement uses the same message that an abusive spouse uses: You are nothing (or less than nothing). Everything you are, you owe to me. You can't get by without me. You will be miserable without me. Where are you going to go if you leave me? The Atonement doctrine = making someone believe less in themselves so that they will be more dependant on someone or something else.
I learned that various teachings & doctrines of Christianity (long after Jesus was purported to have lived) 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.
See also: A Brief History of the Trinity
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.
I was listening to an interview with Jordan Peterson (I think it was on Joe Rogan's podcast) where he criticized skeptics who are quick to dismiss Christianity as "bunk". He basically said "That's not good enough! You need to understand why this story keeps getting passed on!"
I've given it some thought and discovered two broad categories of reasons why the Jesus story has survived for two millennia: it appeals to the common man, and it appeals to the ruling class.
Christianity offers a "second chance" to people: you can have your sins washed away, you can be "born again", you can get absolution for past mistakes, you can start over, etc.
Many people who are down on their luck or experiencing hard times are looking for some way out of their indigent circumstances, or looking for direction. Christianity works as well as many other religions in this case, in that
The Humanist teachings appeal to the everyman: Love your neighbor, help the poor and needy, be kind, etc. This dovetails with the previous two reasons: Christian neighbors might help people who are down on their luck, offering them some assistance which will grant them a second chance in life.
The atonement doctrine appeals to (religious) leaders who want to control people: You're a sinner, you need absolution, only the clergy can grant that to you. This capitalizes on the fact that everyone is imperfect, and by defining normal, human, imperfection as "sin", it sets the stage for manipulating people who want to be absolved of their imperfections / sins.
It is also worth noting that many of the observances and customs regarding deity were influenced heavily by Medieval European royalty. They demanded that people address them as "Lord", bow down to them, pay them taxes, etc. It was easy to make the connection between "earthly" rulers and "heavenly" rulers and demand that people refer to Jesus as "Lord", bow when praying to God, pay your offerings, etc.
If it was just one without the other, Christianity wouldn't have been as compelling to such a broad swath of society. Without the ability to control others, leaders would have no use for it. Without the Humanist teachings, it wouldn't touch the hearts of the common man.
The phrase from the Sermon on the Mount "Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth" is a perfect example of how the ruling class can use Jesus as a way of keeping people docile & submissive ("meek"), by promising them that they'll inherit the earth. (Spoiler alert: The meek will inherit nothing as long as they keep their heads down, and the earth will be inherited by the friends & family of those who are currently in power.)
There's a quote by Seneca the Younger that sums it up nicely:
"Religion is regarded by the common people as true, by the wise as false, and by the rulers as useful." -- Seneca
Christianity was the first religion (that I know of) that wasn't tied to a language and culture. In previous times, your religion was just another incident of your birth: you lived in a certain place, you looked a certain way, you spoke a certain language, you had a certain diet, you had various customs, and you believed in regional gods. The idea of having a "mix and match" religion that could pair up with someone of any nationality was somewhat revolutionary and doubtless helped the belief system to flourish. "Go ye into all the world and preach the gospel to every nation, kindred, tongue, and people" is a uniquely Christian idea.
Of all the characteristics of Jesus, the thing I find the most (*ahem*) redemptive, are the Humanist teachings attributed to him.
There were various occasions where Jesus is shown valuing the (sinful?) individual over the religious leaders of the day. In fact, it appears that Jesus reserved his harshest words for the very religious. His teachings constantly emphasize that how we treat other people will have a much greater impact on our eternal destiny than our devotion to religious practices.
Perhaps my favorite Humanist teaching is the parable of The Good Samaritan. The Samaritans were ethnic Jews that were outcasts due to various past conflicts. As such Samaritans were excluded from religions rituals and instruction.
Jesus depicts a man robbed and beaten by the side of the road who was passed up by two devout religious practitioners: a Priest, and a Levite. The religious instruction they received did not direct them to help this wounded man. Instead, they were taught by their religion that touching a corpse (or soon-to-be corpse) would make them "unclean", so they walked past.
The first individual to help the poor soul is a Samaritan who was expressly forbidden from partaking in the religion of his birthright. It was, therefore, not religious instruction which prompted him to help the beaten man, but his own, innate, sense of morality. (It could be argued that the religious teachings of the Priest and the Levite overrode their innate sense of morality.)
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 reducing suffering by 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, "suffer the little children to come unto me", 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.
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 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...
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 byproduct 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.
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, a regular person, or a composite of man and myth) 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. ;-)